Equality Now’s new advocacy report examines laws relating to rape in numerous countries, and the research has identified serious failing in many laws that are meant to prevent sexual violence and allow survivors’ access to justice.
Sexual violence is being inflicted on women and girls across the world on a daily basis and in epidemic proportions. According to the World Health Organization, over one in three women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence – and often both. If it were considered a medical disease, it would almost definitely have the serious attention – as well as the funding needed – to address it from governments and independent donors alike.
Download Equality Now's report, The World’s Shame – The Global Rape Epidemic: How Laws Around the World are Failing to Protect Women and Girls from Sexual Violence, as SINGLE PAGES or HORIZONTAL SPREADS.
Sexual violence is often something which takes place behind “closed doors” and only reaches the media spotlight when extreme events occur, such as when a 16-year-old girl was filmed being gang-raped in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil or when university student Brock Turner only served three months of a sixth month prison sentence for sexually assaulted an unconscious woman on the street at Stanford University, California in early 2015.
Horrific as these stories are, they dominate the news agenda for a short time and then fade from public view. For the majority of women and girls who are subjected to sexual violence, the reality is often very different. Occasionally, the perpetrator is the “stranger in the dark alley” and but this is not the norm. According to Rape Crisis England and Wales, the perpetrator is known to the victim in 90% of cases. And in many instances around the world, the rapist is the woman or girl’s husband.
With support from the International Bar Association, Ashurst law firm, Advocates for International Development (A4ID) and many, many others, Equality Now’s report surveyed 82 legal systems including within 73 UN member states. Numerous gaps in the laws, policies and practices exist and much needs to be done by governments to ensure that adequate laws are enacted, developed and enforced.
We found, for example, legislation that allows for judicial discretion regarding the standard of proof needed to prove someone has been the victim of a sexual attack. There are a number of instances in which legal requirements demand practically impossible amounts of witness corroboration and overly burdensome evidence, meaning that the chance of getting a successful conviction is minimal.
Judicial discretion to reduce charges or define evidence based on stereotyped assessment of victim’s behaviour was a not uncommon factor across several jurisdictions. We found that rape was treated as an issue of supposed mortality rather than one of violence in at least fifteen jurisdictions examined. Many of these used terminology of humiliation, outrage, honour, modesty, chastity or morality in provisions on rape.
Rape is always a violent act and one of force. However, some jurisdictions analysed in the report require evidence of other violence as an explicit element of the crime. This sends mixed messages about the nature of rape and about a survivor’s “duty” to actively resist. We believe that the law should never interpret a woman or girl’s lack of physical resistance to sexual violence as acquiescence in that violence. Some countries allow rapists to marry their victim and consequently enjoy impunity for their crime. Governments should also look at whether there are lower penalties for paid sex with a minor than for other forms of rape of a minor.
As it stands, governments have repeatedly committed to ending all forms of violence against women and girls – which of course includes sexual violence. In September 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” which includes an agreed upon goal of achieving gender equality and eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls in public and in private. This is a welcome spotlight on the human rights violations which continue to affect countless women, girls, their families and communities and a promise to re-double efforts to end them. However, promises are easy to make.
Sexual violence will not end unless it is dealt with at every level in society as part of a concerted effort to change not only laws and policies, but also attitudes and behaviors – in public and in private. Women and girls are not the property of their fathers or husbands. Sexual assault is not an affront to their menfolk - it is violence against women and girls.
With hundreds of millions of women and girls affected by this violence, we need a wholesale change in how laws are created, implemented and reported on in order to help transform the way the world values them. Only then will women and girls be able to live free from violence and discrimination and able to fulfill their potential.
Download Equality Now's report as SINGLE PAGES or HORIZONTAL SPREADS.
Antonia Kirkland is the Legal Equality Program Manager for Equality Now.