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The Road to Ending Global Sexual Violence

April marked Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Equality Now’s 32nd anniversary. Over the years, we’ve been steadfast in our campaign to end global sexual and gender-based violence and supported justice actors from around the world. At the core of our work are three central principles: good laws, proper implementation of those laws, and application of an intersectional lens. Each principle will positively impact generations of women and girls.

Here are some key successes that have furthered the movement to end sexual violence and speak to our global impact. We thank our partners who have helped make this work possible.

1993: Equality Now helped bring about the acknowledgment of rape as a crime against humanity

A year after our founding, Equality Now called on the UN to stop the rape and killing of Bosnian women during the Yugoslav Wars. In Radovan Karadžić’s conviction in 2016, the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia affirmed rape as a crime against humanity.

2005: Equality Now helped overturn a “marry your rapist” law in Ethiopia

Rape is a criminal offense under Ethiopian law. However, for a time, if marriage was subsequently agreed upon, the law stated that the husband would be exempt from criminal responsibility for his crimes. These laws are often called “marry your rapist” laws. 

In 2005, following advocacy efforts by the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, supported by Equality Now, Ethiopia abolished the law that provided for exemption from punishment in these cases of abduction and rape if the rapist subsequently married his victim.

2009: Equality Now held the Zambian Government responsible for failing to protect schoolgirls

In Zambia, many adolescents and schoolgirls experience rape, sexual abuse, and harassment by their male teachers and male classmates. Many incidents of sexual violence go unreported because of victim shaming, stigma, and fear of reprisal, as well as unresponsive school authorities and legal systems.

In 2006, Equality Now supported a civil suit after a teacher raped a 13-year-old girl. The final judgment was made in the victim’s favor in 2009, serving as an important precedent and highlighting the responsibility of the Zambian Government to protect girls. The Zambia judgment was also cited in a landmark case in Kenya which held both the teacher and the government accountable for the rape of two young girls.

Alongside our partners, Women and Law in Southern Africa and the Forum for African Women Educationalists, Equality Now advocated for legal and systemic reform to hold the Zambian Government accountable.

2011: Equality Now supported the case of a 15-year-old Pakistani girl who was raped by her father and raised local awareness about incest

While Equality Now was not able to leverage a specific law against incest in Pakistan, we were successful in overcoming the local denial that incest is even possible and in using the law on rape to get the highest penalty for the perpetrator in 2011. 

With our partners War Against Rape, Lahore, and Nasreen Welfare Trust Legal Aid Services, we also published a comprehensive report on the subject of incest in Pakistan. The report helps fill a knowledge gap and serves as a vital tool to advocate for the reform of sexual violence laws, especially as they relate to incest.

2017: Equality Now helped change rape laws in Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia

In 2017, Equality Now released a global report, “The World’s Shame: The Global Rape Epidemic,” that examined rape and sexual assault laws in 82 jurisdictions within 73 UN member states. The report identified seven common gaps in rape laws worldwide that contributed to the denial of justice to victims and called on governments and policymakers to fix them and ensure justice for survivors of sexual violence.

Later that same year,  following campaigning by Equality Now and our partners,  Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia overturned provisions that allowed rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims.

2019: Equality Now raised awareness and encouraged public dialogue on sexual violence in Eurasia

Equality Now released a groundbreaking report, “Roadblocks to Justice: How the Law is Failing Survivors of Sexual Violence in Eurasia,” which shows how rape and sexual assault-related laws and practices of the 15 countries of the former Soviet Union effectively deny access to justice for survivors of sexual violence. 

Since then, several countries have taken significant steps to better protect women’s and girls’ right to be free from sexual violence, although more needs to be done. 

2020: Equality Now released urgent recommendations to end caste-based sexual violence

In partnership with Swabhiman Society, Equality Now produced “Justice Denied: Sexual Violence & Intersectional Discrimination – Barriers to Accessing Justice for Dalit Women and Girls in Haryana, India,” which describes the various barriers faced by survivors of sexual violence based on the examination of real cases showing the repeated pattern of discrimination faced by victims in the criminal justice system. It presents urgent recommendations to the Indian and Haryana State Governments for taking action to end caste-based sexual violence.

2021: Equality Now and partners stopped the execution of Noura Hussein

In 2018, Equality Now supported the case of Noura Hussein, a young Sudanese woman. At 17, Noura was forcibly married off to a man who raped her with the aid of three male relatives. When he attempted to rape her again, Noura defended herself. The man died in the ensuing struggle, and the Sudanese court sentenced Noura to death. Following international attention and direct legal support from Equality Now and our partners in Sudan, her death sentence was quashed and commuted to five years in prison.

Conversations of sexual violence were more widely spoken of in Sudan after this, allowing the UN Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and Girls at the time to speak to it during a country visit.

2021: Equality Now helped advocate for change to the Maldives’s Sexual Offences Act

In April 2021, we co-authored a report, “Sexual Violence in South Asia: Legal and Other Barriers to Justice for Survivors,” with Dignity Alliance International that contained an in-depth analysis of laws, policies, and practices related to sexual violence in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, India, and Sri Lanka.

Following the report’s publication and alongside our support of Uthema’s advocacy work, the Maldives amended the Sexual Offences Act to include the criminalization of marital rape in all circumstances. The amendment also strengthened investigation procedures in rape cases. 

Partners in this work also came together in 2023 to review the report and discuss amplifying advocacy around it. Together with others, they and Equality Now founded the South Asian Movement for Accessing Justice (SAMAJ), which will launch formally in 2024. SAMAJ will bring together members’ knowledge and experience on this issue from across the region and work collectively to advocate for overcoming the legal barriers to accessing justice for sexual violence victims in South Asian countries.

2021: Equality Now released a report titled “Failure to Protect: How Discriminatory Sexual Violence Laws and Practices are Hurting Women, Girls, and Adolescents in the Americas” and inspired change in Mexico and Bolivia

Released in September 2021, “Failure to Protect” reviews the gaps and loopholes in the sexual violence laws of 43 jurisdictions in 35 countries in North America, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. The report calls on governments to improve protections, access to justice, and implementation of the law. 

This report initiated a groundbreaking dialogue in the region concerning discriminatory laws that perpetuated impunity, particularly those that failed to protect adolescent girls from rape in situations where there is an imbalance of power, as well as other discriminatory and stereotypical practices that victims face when seeking justice. 

Since the publication of this report, activists, lawyers, and governments have called for regulatory reforms and the eradication of these discriminatory practices, as evidenced by changes at the federal level in Mexico and Bolivia.

2022: Equality Now’s recommendations on drafting laws based on consent were adopted into a federal bill in Mexico

In Mexico, our recommendations and guidelines for drafting laws based on consent were adopted into a federal bill presented in the Senate’s Judicial and Legislative Studies Commissions. Equality Now continues to defend this bill and works with stakeholders in Mexico City and Oaxaca State to draft similar state-level bills.

2022: Equality Now helped amend Nepal’s sexual violence laws to extend the statute of limitations

Equality Now’s partnership with the Forum for Women Law and Development led to the amendment of Nepal’s sexual violence laws, including an explicit direction to undertake comprehensive reforms to extend the statute of limitations and align with international human rights standards. Now Nepalese adult survivors can file a rape report within two years of the incident occurring, and those raped as minors can file a case within three years of them turning 18.

2023: Equality Now found victory in the case of Brisa De Angulo, leading to the establishment of new human rights standards

Equality Now began working with Brisa, a Bolivian woman who was raped repeatedly for months by her adult cousin starting when she was 15, in 2014. We helped bring the case against the State of Bolivia to the Inter-American System. 

In  January 2023, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR)  issued its verdict establishing new human rights standards that will improve access to justice for millions of child and adolescent victims of sexual violence. Our feminist legal recommendations are embedded in the ruling, creating the opportunity for Bolivia and other countries in the region to enact consent-based laws on sexual violence that fully protect women, adolescents, and children. Most criminal codes in LAC rely on proof of force to define crimes of sexual violence. Through Brisa’s case, the IACtHR has adopted the international standard of lack of consent as the central proof of crimes of sexual violence. 

The judgment also eliminates the discriminatory criminal offense of estupro. Estupro describes the rape of an adolescent girl by an adult through seduction or deception. It generally carries a much lower penalty than the rape of a girl or an adult woman and mislabels rape that relies on a power imbalance as something other than rape. Bolivia must now amend its current laws, establish country-wide sexual violence prevention measures, and invest in training for law enforcement and legal professionals.

The ruling provides groundbreaking jurisprudence that can be applied in other countries and regions. For example, more than 50% of the judgment has never been made by a European court. Civil society organizations, regional mechanisms, and government officials, particularly those in Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia, are partnering with us to reform their laws and procedures.

2023: Equality Now helped increase protection for victims of sexual violence in Uzbekistan

After pressure from Equality Now alongside local NGOs, Uzbekistan introduced legal reform that provided increased protection for victims of sexual violence, including minors, as part of broader reforms to improve access for women and children to their rights. This legislation creates a powerful route to justice for women and girls that has been absent until now.

2023: Equality Now helped overturn a “marry your rapist” law in Bahrain

For years, Equality Now amplified the voice of partners to advocate for the end of the so-called “marry your rapist” law in Bahrain through joint UN submissions, regional convenings, and our global rape laws report. Bahrain Parliament abolished the law in June, offering greater protection against sexual violence and closing a gap that allowed impunity for rapists.

2023: Equality Now helped draft a comprehensive sexual and gender-based violence law in Kwale County, Kenya

Kenya’s Kwale County passed a comprehensive sexual and gender-based violence bill into law in December 2023. After successfully advocating for reform, Equality Now formed part of the drafting team for the law, which collaborated with government agencies, civil society organizations, and the public to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence.

2024: Equality Now raised awareness about the rise of digital abuse

In recent years, Equality Now has helped spread awareness about international digital abuse and online sexual exploitation, and with our partners, we pressed for a Global Digital Compact. Most recently, we released a report titled “Sexual Violence and Harassment in the Metaverse,” which delves into technology-facilitated abuse and the potential for applying and adapting existing criminal laws to the metaverse.

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