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Sex discrimination in violence laws is putting women and girls at greater risk

USA, New York, November 23, 2022 – To prevent gender-based violence and hold offenders to account, a strong and well-implemented legal and policy framework is essential. And yet, in many countries, women and girls are denied the same legal rights as men and boys. A new policy briefing by Equality NowWords & Deeds: Holding Governments Accountable to the Beijing +30 Review Process – Sex Discrimination in Violence Laws – highlights sex discrimination in laws related to violence against women and girls, and how violations are being perpetuated due to inequality written into the law itself which results in a lack of deterrence and even impunity for perpetrators.  

Discrimination in sexual violence laws

The World Health Organization estimates that 30% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. This staggering number is exacerbated by inequality, discrimination, and permitted violence found within some laws. 

One way rape laws discriminate is when they deliberately make exceptions for certain kinds of rape, such as within marriage, or when they allow a rapist to avoid criminal prosecution by marrying his victim. 

Many countries still have legal definitions of rape based on force, or the threat of force, instead of a lack of consent. As a consequence, victims often have to prove that they physically resisted an attack, and this commonly requires submitting evidence of additional injuries caused by the assailant. Such an approach fails to understand the varied ways a victim may respond to rape, and enables many cases of rape to go unpunished, thus fostering effective impunity and perpetrators’ sense of entitlement.

Violence against women and girls is also perpetrated online, but there is currently no universal standard for ending online sexual exploitation and abuse. The patriarchy and misogyny that flourishes in our physical society are being replicated and exacerbated online and laws must address this in the digital realm. 

Laws that need urgent reform

The Bahamas and India both explicitly allow rape within marriage. Laws that are silent or make an exception for marital rape treat the wife as the property of the husband and render her vulnerable to sexual abuse within marriage. 

Thailand provides marital immunity for sexual intercourse with girls under the age of 15 who are said to ‘consent’ by virtue of marriage, and allows a man who rapes a girl between the ages of 13 to 15 to escape punishment by marrying the victim. The penal codes of Kuwait and Libya also provide “marry-your-rapist” legal loopholes. 

In Singapore, marital immunity is granted for sexual activity with minors under the age of 16 who are said to “consent”. While in Paraguay, there is a lower penalty for sexual offences against adolescent girls between the ages of 14 to 16 than for rape of a child or a woman.

Iraq gives a husband a legal right to punish his wife within certain limits prescribed by law or custom. Egypt allows for a lesser punishment for men who kill their wives on discovering them in an act of adultery than for other forms of murder.

International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

In 1995, at the UN’s 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing, 189 governments agreed on a comprehensive roadmap to advance rights for women and girls and achieve gender equality. As legal equality is an essential component, one of the commitments made by states was that they would “revoke any remaining laws that discriminate on the basis of sex”. 

Since then, Equality Now has been tracking a sampling of explicitly sex-discriminatory laws that affect many aspects of a girl’s or woman’s life, and periodically reports on those still requiring reform. For International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25, we are taking the opportunity to again advocate for the immediate amendment or repeal of all sexist legislation around the world.

Progress has been slow and inconsistent, but on a positive note, some laws highlighted in our 2020 report have been repealed or amended, and in other cases, there are bills in the works for new or better laws. 

We welcome a recent progressive ruling by India’s top court stating “intimate partner violence is a reality and can take the form of rape” and married women can become pregnant due to rape by their husbands. We hope this will lead to marital rape being outlawed.

A law in Syria that completely exempted men who killed their female relatives for “honor” from punishment has been repealed, removing the mitigating excuse for crimes of “honor” which sanctioned a much lesser penalty.

In the Bahamas, a new bill is pending to amend the law that explicitly allows marital rape, and adds a definition of consent to sex. 

Antonia Kirkland, Equality Now’s Global Lead on Legal Equality, says “A strong and comprehensive legal and policy framework and environment is essential to protect women and girls from violence. Laws need to be drafted from a universal, intersectional feminist understanding of the power dynamics and inequality which leads to gender-based violence, and too often a lack of access to justice, experienced by many women and girls globally.”