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Roadblocks To Justice: How The Law Is Failing Survivors Of Sexual Violence In Eurasia

Released in January 2019, this report contains a general overview of the laws on sexual violence in the 15 countries of the former Soviet Union and an analysis of gaps in the law and examples of practice allowing for impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence crimes. Detailed country profiles are also set out, which contain relevant excerpts from legislation in effect across Eurasia. 

“This report will be an important tool for all governments, law makers and advocates for the rights of women and girls across the post-Soviet region.”

Elizabeth Evatt AC, former Chair of the UN CEDAW Committee and a former member of the UN Human Rights Committee

The research was conducted to examine the following three issues:

1. Exemptions from criminal liability/penalty provided in the specific articles on sexual violence in the criminal codes;

2. Exemptions from criminal liability/penalty contained in the general provisions of the criminal codes, as applied to all crimes, including sexual violence;

3. Application of the law in practice.

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Key Findings: Roadblocks to Justice

Rape and sexual assault-related laws and practices of the 15 countries of the former Soviet Union – that is Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan – effectively deny access to justice for survivors of sexual violence.

  • This is because the legal system provides a number of opportunities for perpetrators to escape criminal liability or punishment, including:
  • Through the way sexual violence crimes are defined;
  • Through the way the law allows for the direct release of a perpetrator from liability or punishment in certain circumstances;
  • Through the way sexual violence crimes are investigated and prosecuted, including with respect to adolescent girls;
  • Failure to designate certain violent practices as crimes; and
  • As a consequence of layers of discrimination against women and girls generally and through the intersection with other forms of marginalization/vulnerability.

Lack of faith in the justice system, as well as societal norms influenced by patriarchal culture, which in turn influence the administration of justice and which blame women and girls for the violence they experience, meaning there is considerable underreporting of sexual violence.

Even when women and girls report various forms of violence to the police, physical violence is usually recorded while sexual violence is often overlooked and not therefore recorded. 

Particularly problematic provisions in law and practice which serve to deny justice to survivors are regarding initiating an investigation into certain crimes of sexual violence only upon a victim’s claim (“private’’ or “public-private prosecutions”) and allowing reconciliation for these crimes. These allow local law enforcement authorities not only to discourage survivors from filing such a claim but also to close investigations if the survivor withdraws her claim for any reason, or is pressured into reconciliation by the perpetrator. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has found this to be the case in Kyrgyzstan, for example, where it conducted an inquiry into bride kidnapping and in September 2018 strongly recommended mandatory prosecution of rape by the authorities (“ex officio”).

Limited definitions of sexual violence crimes leave many of the coerced and non-consensual acts of a sexual character without any punishment. Moreover, burdensome evidence requirements, gender stereotyping, and secondary victimization throughout legal proceedings further deny justice to survivors. Adolescent girls subjected to bride kidnappings, child marriages, or forced marriages in many of the countries under review are often denied access to justice for sexual violence. Even though marital rape is not explicitly excluded as a crime under the law, it is very seldom prosecuted or punished. Women with vulnerable status are less likely to receive any justice for sexual violence they suffer.

The 15 former Soviet Union countries inherited large, if not all, parts of the criminal codes from the Soviet period, including similar structure, legal concepts, and definitions. Equality Now’s hope, therefore, is that positive reform in one country could inspire and support further reform in a neighboring country, as we witnessed in several Middle Eastern countries in 2017 and 2018 with the repeal of similarly modeled rape exemption laws in Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine.

This mapping of existing legal frameworks, in collaboration with organizations and activists across the region, will provide a base of evidence for us to develop advocacy strategies with partners calling for legal reform based on international and regional human rights law and standards and to plan future joint campaign activities.