Today is International Women’s Day, a global celebration of women’s achievements, as well as a call to arms for the improvement of women’s rights everywhere. But there remains a huge and pressing threat to women’s lives today, no matter where they are: sexual violence. According to the UN, around 120 million girls around the world have been subjected to rape or forced sexual acts at some point in their life – that’s one in 10 women. “If it were a medical disease,” points out the charity Equality Now, “sexual violence would have the serious attention and the funding to address it, from governments and independent donors alike.”
Sadly, the truth of the situation is very different. Across the globe, laws regarding sexual violence are highly inadequate as a preventative and give little hope to survivors in terms of accessing justice, because they fail to punish acts of rape or sexual abuse in a meaningful way. On International Women’s Day particularly, Equality Now wants to call attention to this fact and urges anyone who cares about the welfare of women and girls to wake up and take notice. They’ve produced a report looking at 82 jurisdictions across the globe, including 73 UN member states (plus Palestine), and the results are clear: when it comes to rape, the law needs an overhaul.
While Equality Now’s report can’t cover every country in the world, and can’t account for any changes to laws since the research was carried out, between 2014 and 2015 (mostly, there have been none), it does spot several alarming trends. Laws that allow the perpetrator to walk free if they reach some form of "settlement" such as marrying the victim are rife (Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Palestine, Philippines, Tajikistan and Tunisia), while other laws or practices inhibit investigation or prosecution of sexual assault. Many laws are also framed around morality rather than bodily integrity, allowing charges to be based on stereotyped assessment of the complainant’s behaviour, like whether she has a “strong personality”.
Antonia Kirkland is Equality Now’s lead on legal equality, and oversees the organisation’s work to ensure that the human rights of women and girls are upheld by governments. She explains how the report was put together; first, they sent out a survey to lawyers in different countries (they got 73 back – just over a third of the countries in the world), then they analysed them with the help of the International Bar Association, then put out a report with the data, matching it up to on-the-ground stories of violence that illustrate how the report is more than just information on a page. They chose to focus on rape for their campaign, says Antonia, “because the prevalence was so shocking”, but it was also a matter of urgent timing.
At the UN General Assembly in 2015, violence against women and girls – sexual or otherwise – was identified as a threat not only to individuals and families, but also to the wider economy. While the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, presented in 2015, included a plan to outlaw this type of violence, Equality Now’s report aims to provide practical ways in which governments of UN states can actually do this. The report can be used as an advocacy tool for UN agencies or UN treaty body committees to lobby not just the governments mentioned in the report but all governments that pledge to stop violence against women and girls, Antonia explains.
So far, Equality Now’s work has led to some major successes. “We are seeing progress in Lebanon, for example, as well as Jordan and Bahrain, in regards to governments looking at laws allowing rapists off if they marry the woman they’ve raped,” says Antonia. “We’ve worked on the issue for a while in Africa and the Middle East, and the most recent complete repeal we’ve seen was in Morocco [where the government changed the law about marrying your victim in 2014] after the media coverage of Amina Filali‘s case, a 16-year-old girl who committed suicide after she was married off to her rapist. We’re trying to build on that to lobby other governments to repeal.”
Equality Now is reticent to point out any laws or countries that are the “worst”, because all laws that permit or minimise rape should be seen as equally harmful. The report does however highlight some particular issues. One of these is survivor-blaming. In Bolivia, for example, there’s a crime called “estupro”, which minimises charges for the rape of girls aged 14-18, blaming it on carnal desire caused by seduction or deceit. Antonia describes one case that Equality Now worked on, where a 16-year-old girl was raped and her trial focussed on her character. One of the judges at the trial suggested she couldn’t have been raped because she didn’t scream. Equality Now wants to repeal estupro.
Elsewhere, coercion is not properly tackled within the law. “Some of the examples we point to in the report are student-teacher relationships, where the student is dependent on teacher for good grades and teacher is pressuring them, so they can’t really consent because there’s a power dynamic,” says Antonia. That should be classed as exploitation but it’s not, she says, and it usually involves adults having sex with minors. This happens a lot in Zambia – where sexual exploitation in schools is rife but treated with impunity – and in Sierra Leone, where girls are often expected to transact sex for rides to school, then are made to leave school when they fall pregnant by their rapists. “That’s like a double violation for these girls,” says Antonia.
Changing the law is just the first step in the process of combatting these widespread practices: “We really see the law as the foundation for how governments treat their citizens and how society views citizens,” says Antonia. “But once you have the right law in place it has to be implemented or applied and there has to be an understanding of it among the public, the media, and in how cases are reported.” She truly believes that, as it stands, violence is perpetuated because of the law. “We’ve seen in places like Morocco or Ethiopia how exemptions in the law are almost promoting violence, and re-victimising the survivor by making them marry their rapist, for example. That’s the most extreme case, yes, but without stronger laws, these women will never be able to access justice or remedy, to go to court or be made whole again.”
Equality Now’s campaign comes at a crucial moment, given that President Donald Trump has been toying with the idea of withdrawing substantial funding from international organisations, including the UN: a draft order identifies two treaties in particular that would be up for review – the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. If the funding withdrawal were to go ahead, “it could make things really difficult for women’s rights organisations,” explains Antonia. “The UN is such an important forum for discussing issues [such as gender-based violence] with governments of UN member states. When these governments come before the agencies and treaty bodies and say they’re committed to doing XYZ on violence, we’re able to hold them accountable and also to have a conversation about how organisations can work with them to change the law.”
Meanwhile, lawyers like Antonia carry on lobbying governments for change behind the scenes, and hoping that it needn't take a high-profile case like Amina Filali’s in Morocco to prompt the repeal of inherently sexist laws. If you personally want to support Equality Now and help speed up the process, she says, you can sign the charity's petitions, which will be forwarded to the governments that were included in the report. There are individual country campaigns looking at particular issues and an overall petition against the global rape epidemic, to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in 2017.