From Belgium to Bahrain, rape is still considered a moral crime rather than a violent one, with convicted rapists able to escape punishment by marrying their victims or reaching a settlement with them, according to a disturbing analysis of global laws on sexual violence.
A report by Equality Now also found that in Greece, Serbia, Russia and Thailand, perpetrators of sexual violence may be legally exempt from punishment in certain circumstances, for instance if the girl is “deemed too young to consent” to sex.
Rape is a largely ignored global epidemic affecting millions of women and girls, the international rights organisation said, yet laws around the world are failing to protect them. Such laws deny justice to the victim, send a signal that rape is not a serious offence and shift the stigma of shame to the survivor rather than the perpetrator, the study argued.
About 35% of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence, according to the World Health Organization. One in 10 girls, or 120 million children worldwide, have experienced “forced intercourse or forced sexual acts” at some point in their lives.
The rape of a woman or girl by her husband is legal in 10 out of 82 jurisdictions in 73 UN member states surveyed by the organisation.
Antonia Kirkland, the report’s author and Equality Now’s legal manager, said: “This report clearly shows that women are considered less than equal than men in the law.
“Our message to governments is that they should be reviewing their legislation, their laws, their policies on sexual violence to remove discrimination. They should be working with women’s organisations, with survivors organisations to do this, and only then are we going to see a world that respects the rights of women and girls.”
Among the worst laws, she said, were those that allow rapists and sexual offenders to escape punishment if they agree to marry their victims.
“These laws can promote violence and survivors can be re-victimised,” Kirkland said.
Kirkland cited the tragic case of Amina Filali, from Larache, near Tangiers, whose case triggered protests against a law in Morocco that allowed rapists to go free if they marry their victims. Filali, 16, killed herself after being forced to marry her rapist.
Filali’s ordeal sparked a change in the law in Morrocco in 2014, after a campaign by NGOs including Equality Now.
The report follows a World Bank study that found 155 of of 173 countries have laws that limit women’s economic opportunities. The Middle East and north Africa had the most discriminatory laws, particularly on the ability of women to work or move freely.
Under the sustainable development goals, adopted by the UN general assembly in 2015, governments have committed to ending violence against women and girls worldwide by 2030.
Equality Now’s report, The World’s Shame: the Global Rape Epidemic, was undertaken with the help of the International Bar Association.
Another key finding was that penalties imposed for paid sex with a minor can be significantly lower than the punishment for other forms of child rape. In Indonesia, for example, the penalty is up to 15 years for statutory rape, but only up to five years for paid sex with a minor. Such laws “fail to recognise true consent is impossible in situations of dependency or extreme vulnerability”, it said.
In 15 of the 82 jurisdictions examined, including Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Jordan as well as Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, rape is treated as an issue of morality rather than violence.
The report highlighted laws or practices that inhibited the investigation of sexual violence – and required witness corroboration and other “overly burdensome evidence” – in countries including Spain, Luxembourg and Morocco. Such laws enable judges to reduce charges or permit evidence, allowing them to be influenced by stereotypes around the victims behaviour, said the report.
One particularly harrowing case outlined in the study concerned “Samantha”, a 16-year old schoolgirl from Sierra Leone, whose teacher would often ask her to carry water to his house in exchange for basic school supplies and good grades. He molested and raped Samantha and she became pregnant. Despite her family’s interventions, the teacher was allowed to continue working, while Samantha was expelled from school because of her pregnancy.
Kirkland said the report was a call to action, not only for the 73 member states listed, but also for campaigners and individuals to reform discriminatory laws. There are links in the report to various reform campaigns in Egypt, Lebanon, India, Malta, Palestine, Paraguay, Sierra Leone, Singapore and Syria.
Equality Now will present a petition to the UN Human Rights Council in June.
“We are seeing some movement in Lebanon, where one of the parliamentary committees recommended the law [which allows rapists to be exempt from punishment if they marry their victims] be repealed,” said Kirkland. “But now, we are hearing they are proposing an exemption for 15- to 18-year-old girls”.
The report acknowledged that sexual violence is also perpetrated against boys and men, but focused on women and girls because most perpetrators are male and many laws contain explicit discrimination against women.