Sexual Violence In Eurasia: Removing Roadblocks To Justice - Equality Now

Sexual Violence In Eurasia: Removing Roadblocks To Justice

Across the world, patriarchal structures inform and support legal systems that deny justice to survivors of sexual violence and fail to bring perpetrators to justice. The countries of Eurasia in eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia (states formerly part of the Soviet Union) are no exception. Impunity for sexual violence is further exacerbated by a widespread practice of early and child marriages and bride kidnappings in some parts of Eurasia.

Whilst sexual violence is widespread, talking about it publicly is taboo across much of the region. There is little recognition of the problem or understanding of the scale and failure of the justice system to respond to this crime. Consequently, there is considerable underreporting of sexual violence, and many of the reported cases of sexual violence are not even recorded as such. Sexual violence cases result in conviction in extremely limited circumstances.

What do laws in the region say and what are the gaps in the criminal procedures?

Throughout Eurasia, existing laws, procedures and practices on sexual violence do not comply with international human rights standards. Failures in ensuring a holistic system of preventing and prosecuting sexual violence and providing redress lead to the denial of justice for sexual violence. Addressing sexual violence is the key for achieving substantive equality and transformative change for women and girls in the region.

Limited definitions of sexual violence crimes lead to impunity of perpetrators

The definitions of rape in the region are mainly focused on the use of violence, threat of violence and abusing the helpless state of the victim, while remaining sexual violence crimes fail to envisage a broad range coercive circumstances and fail to introduce lack of consent as defining element of the crime.

International human rights standards, including the Istanbul Convention, suggest that definitions of sexual violence crimes should be based on the lack of victim’s genuine, free and willing consent and should take into account a broad range of coercive circumstances. Unlike in all countries in Eurasia (except Ukraine) force should be an aggravating factor of rape, rather than its constituting element.

In all countries of Eurasia, marital rape is a crime, since it is not excluded from general sexual violence articles. However, marital rape is seldom recognized as a crime by law enforcement and is very seldom prosecuted when reported at all.

In the region, only Georgia and Estonia have so far ratified the Istanbul Convention. Though, even these countries still have to amend their sexual violence provisions in line with the Convention. Ukraine is the first country in the region, which introduced a consent-based definition of rape in line with the requirements of the Convention (ratification of the Convention is pending).

Private prosecution and reconciliation procedures deny justice to survivors

International human rights standards state that there should be mandatory (ex officio) prosecution by the state for sexual and gender-based violence; and that proceedings should not be discontinued if the victim withdraws her complaint, reconciles with the perpetrator, or enters into marriage with him.

In most of the countries of the region however (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan), there is no mandatory prosecution by the state of sexual violence. Sexual violence cases are prosecuted through either private or private-public prosecution - meaning that the criminal proceedings can only be initiated by the survivor and, many times, the proceedings terminate if the survivor withdraws her complaint or “reconciles” with the abuser. Essentially private prosecution leaves survivors bearing the burden of collecting evidence of the crime committed against them for part of the proceedings, including paying for examinations by medical experts and legal fees.

Lack of mandatory investigation and prosecution by the state allows a perpetrator to be absolved of his crime, since investigations can be closed if the survivor withdraws her claim for her inability to continue with the proceedings for any reason, or if she or her family are pressured into reconciliation by the perpetrator, including with money or a marriage proposal. Such legal provisions also enable local law enforcement to discourage survivors from filing sexual violence claims.

Gaps in implementing public prosecution for sexual violence crimes

In many areas, burdensome evidence requirements, gender stereotypes and secondary trauma due to a legal process that does not center survivors and their experiences further contributes to denying survivors a chance to obtain justice.

A lack of faith in the justice system, as well as societal norms influenced by patriarchal culture,
hinder the administration of justice in Eurasia. The culture of shame surrounding rape becomes a vicious cycle, blaming women and girls for, and thereby silencing them from, reporting abuses, or traumatising them further during the reporting process and so driving the problem further away from public and legal scrutiny.

Salome, a student in Tbilisi, Georgia, was raped one evening while she was walking home from work. She reported the crime to the police, who repeatedly questioned her over what she was wearing and initially disbelieved her because of the way she looked.

“I went to the police. They said they I didn’t look like a decent family girl. It was February. I was wearing a long dress and a warm jacket. I was not wearing tights. They asked me repeatedly why I was not wearing tights. As if that would have changed anything.”

Even though Salome was pregnant due to the crime, she was still made to undergo intrusive investigative measures, such as an examination of her hymen, and faced taunts from the police officers who were charged with helping investigate her case.

Child marriages and bride kidnappings put women and girls at risk of sexual violence, and then deny them justice

Adolescent girls are subjected to bride kidnappings, and child or forced marriages in many of the countries in Eurasia. These practices many times lead to the denial of justice for the sexual violence committed following these abuses. The law in Russia, for example, explicitly exempts an adult perpetrator from punishment for statutory rape if he marries the girl. In the other countries also, perpetrators benefit from general exemptions in the law, or by plea agreements in practice.

Marginalised women face greater barriers to justice

Women with disabilities, ethnic minority women, women in prostitution, LBT women and other marginalised women often face greater barriers and are less likely to receive justice for sexual violence.

This is due to multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination that vulnerable women face, due to existing legal provisions (e.g. the fear of women in prostitution of themselves being penalized, lack of access to law enforcement by undocumented women etc), language barriers, stigma towards vulnerable women, and lack of skills of the authorities to investigate sexual violence against these women.

What are the laws in each country?

Download fact sheets on the specific laws in each country across Eurasia*.

Armenia | Azerbaijan | Belarus | Estonia | Georgia | Kazakhstan| Kyrgyzstan | Latvia | Lithuania | Moldova | Russia | Tajikistan | Turkmenistan | Ukraine | Uzbekistan

*correct as of Jan 2019

What is Equality Now doing about this?

Equality Now’s report, Roadblocks to Justice: How the Law Is Failing Survivors of Sexual Violence in Eurasia, is the first of its kind and expands upon the global work Equality Now has done in the past surrounding sexual violence, including our 2017 report, The World’s Shame: The Global Rape Epidemic.

Equality Now is urging governments in across the region to change laws, policies and practices to address sexual violence and provide access to justice for survivors (including bride kidnapping and child marriage). Together with local human rights groups, Equality Now has made submissions to UN Treaty Bodies and Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR) on addressing sexual violence in:

What can you do? 

Join Equality Now 

To learn more, you can also read our full Roadblocks To Justice report.