Tuesday, April 27, 2021
By Shelby Logan (April 27, 2021)
This month, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) issued a report on women's bodily autonomy detailing scenarios in which rapists in 20 countries can marry their victims, often against their will, to escape criminal prosecution. In Russia, for example, if an 18 year old statutorily rapes a minor younger than 16, the perpetrator is exempt from punishment if they marry the survivor. These laws, and other laws discussed in the report, deny women bodily autonomy and reflect archaic and discriminatory views about women and girls' right and ability to decide whether or when to have sex.
“Marry Your Rapist” laws deny justice to survivors and signal that rape is not a serious crime. The laws also put survivors at risk for continued abuse and perpetuate stigma against them. Human rights activists fear that even if these laws are abolished, families may still coerce women and girls who become pregnant as a result of rape into marrying their attackers in countries where abortion is criminalized and there are barriers to getting birth certificates for children born out of wedlock.
UNFPA reports that fifty percent of women in 57 countries that were analyzed in the report are denied the right to make their own decisions about having sex, using contraception, or seek reproductive healthcare. In addition to "Marry Your Rapist" laws, 43 countries have no legislation criminalizing marital rape. Further, it is estimated that there are 650 million women alive today who were married before the age of 18 and every year an additional 12 million girls are married before they become adults.
Although all but one of the world’s countries has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, many countries still allow marriage under the age of 18, sometimes with the consent of a parent, guardian, judge or other governmental official. Many countries that prohibit these types of marriage by law still struggle to prevent child marriage. Much like the forced unions resulting from “Marry Your Rapist” laws, many of these marriages take place in traditional or religious ceremonies and are never registered with civil authorities.
Yet, as much as there is a tremendous amount of work to be done, progress is slowly being made. Tunisia, Jordan, and most recently, Lebanon, repealed and reformed clauses within their penal codes that enabled perpetrators to evade prosecution by marrying the women they raped. In August 2017, Lebanon removed a discriminatory legal provision related to article 522 of the Lebanese Penal Code after a successful nationwide advocacy campaign led by UN Women Lebanon and ABAAD Institution for Gender Equality. Activists mobilized during the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence to strengthen legislation to protect women and girls from sexual violence and exploitation and to spur broader changes of societal norms. All three countries also closed loopholes that enabled families to force women into marriage with their rapists to prevent the social stigma of pre-marital sex.
These changes are historic legal victories for women’s movements in the protection of bodily autonomy, and examples of the path forward to combatting these patriarchal laws. By centering the stories of real women harmed by these violent policies, advocates are demonstrating how passionate and skillful activism can bring about landmark change and provide a blueprint for legal reform in the countries where these harmful laws remain.