Around the world, sexual violence laws are failing survivors. From proof of force requirements to discriminatory evidentiary burdens, from permitting marital rape to statutes of limitations which place a time limit within which victims can get justice, laws pertaining to sexual violence – especially rape – frequently blame survivors for their own abuse and perpetuate the cycle of harm.
Laws that stigmatize victims and hinder the possibility for justice and accountability must be replaced by laws that reflect the true nature of sexual violence, absent negative stereotypes, and myths, and are informed by the experiences of survivors.
Discrimination in sexual violence laws: ‘marry your rapist’ laws
Most of the countries in the Arab region have or have only recently removed, laws that pardon rapists and perpetrators from punishment if they marry their victims.
These laws remain in place in the region in Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Syria, Libya, and Algeria. The law in Lebanon, even though the specific ‘marry your rapist’ law has been repealed, still contains further loopholes that allow rapists and sexual harassers to escape punishment.
Discrimination in sexual violence laws: Estupro
The crime of estupro usually describes cases in which an adult has sexual relations with a minor above the legal age of consent by means of seduction or deceit. This discriminatory law mislabels rape and contributes to impunity for rapists as it ignores the exploitation of unequal power dynamics and the vulnerability of teenage girls. In addition, the penalties prescribed under estupro provisions are generally very low, far lower than applicable penalties for rape, and are not commensurate with the severity of the crime.
Discrimination in sexual violence laws: statutes of limitations
One of the most ubiquitous barriers to justice for survivors are statutes of limitation clauses which require victims to report crimes committed against them in a set period of time. There are multiple reasons that survivors make not report sexual violence in a “timely” manner, including but not limited to:
- Fear of retribution by abuser, family and/or community;
- Culture of victim-blaming within law enforcement and/or larger community;
- Internalized feelings of shame and guilt;
- Lack of accessible places to report;
- Unawareness of legal rights.
Whether physical, economic, psychological, emotional, mental, or societal, every reason that a survivor has for not going to the authorities is a valid one. But just because trauma takes time, does not mean that sexual violence survivors should not have access to legal remedies if and when they choose. The impact of sexual violence is lifelong, it does not expire after a set period and neither should the laws that protect us.
Promoting consent-based laws
Sexual encounters that aren’t based on willing, genuine, and voluntary consent are by definition coercive. Physical violence is not the only manifestation of coercion and the presence of alcohol or drugs does not negate the need for consent. However, many countries have laws that require proof of force or struggle to prove that rape occurred.
To ensure that all victims of sexual violence are able to access legal recourse, rape laws must always explicitly recognize that the hallmark of a lawful sexual act is active and willing consent.