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Four Years On From #MeToo: The Global Rape Epidemic Continues

In October 2017, the hashtag #MeToo went viral, with women and girls across the world sharing their stories of sexual assault and harassment. For those of us working in women’s rights, these stories were sadly not shocking, but for many it was a wake-up call, shining a spotlight on just how endemic sexual violence is around the world.

Due to structural and systematic inequality, sexual violence is a human rights violation that predominantly affects women and girls. Over a lifetime, one in three women will experience physical or sexual violence — regardless of their age, background, or country.

Sexual violence is overwhelmingly committed by men against women and girls based on dynamics of power, entitlement, and prejudicial stereotypes. Its harmful consequences are frequently exacerbated by discriminatory laws. Adolescent girls, women with disabilities, and women from marginalized communities, including LGBTQ+ people, face additional vulnerabilities and intersecting barriers when attempting to access justice.

Sexual violence and the threat of such violence exert coercive control over women and girls and prevent them from exercising their rights; accessing resources, services, and opportunities; participating in public and private life, and impacts their physical and mental health.

According to the World Bank, violence against women is estimated to cost countries up to 3.7% of their GDP – more than double what most governments spend on education.

Across the world, governments are failing to fulfill their obligations to protect women and girls. Criminal justice systems are not accessible and survivors often feel re-traumatized when seeking justice. The failure to address sex discriminatory laws and policies reinforces social norms and attitudes that render sexual violence ‘acceptable’ and blame and stigmatize the victims.

When a problem is endemic, solutions can feel overwhelming and out of reach.

Especially when tackling violence against women and girls is rarely a policy priority for governments. At Equality Now we start with the law.

Laws form the basis of our societies and are a demonstration of the value we place on people. When laws fail to reflect the seriousness of the crime, they devalue victims and perpetuate violence and discrimination.

Since Equality Now’s founding in 1992, we have worked to reform legal systems around the world so that survivors of sexual violence are able to access justice on their own terms. Additionally, we advocate for preventative measures to bring an end to violence against women.

For our global report, The World’s Shame, in 2017 we analyzed the sexual violence laws in 82 jurisdictions including within 73 UN member states around the world. While the contexts were different, we found commonalities where laws fail to protect women and girls from sexual violence.

Laws are failing to protect women and girls

In many jurisdictions around the world, the law, either through its text or through its manner of implementation – or lack thereof, provides that rape has only happened if there is additional physical violence, a victim actively tries to resist or is unable to resist. Some allow marital rape, or lesser penalties if the victim is an adolescent rather than a young child or an adult woman, or even exemption from punishment if the rapist marries the victim. Such laws imply that sexual violence is acceptable under certain circumstances, thus denying many victims access to justice and perpetuating violence.

We’re working to change them

We’ve continued to analyze rape laws, with regional reports on Eurasia in 2019 and South Asia in 2021, and co-hosted an expert group meeting on rape in collaboration with the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights in 2020. 

The analysis we contributed to the Special Rapporteur’s subsequent report on rape and proposed model law enabled us to offer Mexican partners significant contributions for amending the federal penal code to start to address some of these negative stereotypes and to develop a better framework that would allow more access to justice. Such measures would include removal of the statute of limitations for sexual violence crimes, and basing the definition of rape on the lack of voluntary, genuine, and willing consent.

Explore our reports and stay tuned for further resources and analysis, including a report on sexual violence laws in the Americas, coming in the next few months.