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One Major Way to End the Global Rape Epidemic: Through Laws


Sexual violence against women and girls runs through all societies. One way to prevent such atrocities is for governments to legislate strong laws that are then enforced. JOHN PENNEY

Recently in northern India, a five-months pregnant 10-year-old girl was forced to go to court to request an abortion after conceiving as a result of being repeatedly raped by her stepfather.

Indian law does not allow terminating a pregnancy after 20 weeks unless doctors certify that the woman’s life or health is in danger; or in this case, a young girl’s life. The New York Times reported that on May 15, a medical board initially said that the girl was not endangered by the pregnancy. This decision was made despite that under Indian law, a grave injury to the mental health of a pregnant woman is automatically assumed if the pregnancy is caused by rape, so an abortion is allowed.

As the law permits abortions under “exceptional circumstances,” Indian police petitioned the court for a decision on whether this situation met such conditions. There was also a question as to whether the girl’s pregnancy was under or over the 20-week threshold. A group of doctors finally passed a motion recommending that the girl be allowed to end her pregnancy, which the court said it would accept. According to Hindustan Times, the abortion proceeded.

Sadly, unwanted pregnancy among adolescent girls is all too common and often poses a serious health risk. The World Health Organization reported that the leading cause of death for 15- to 19-year-old girls globally is complications from pregnancy and childbirth. Worldwide, millions of adolescent girls are subjected to sexual violence and too many are forced to become mothers against their wishes. This situation represents a serious public health and human-rights problem.

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For the last two years, the international human-rights organization Equality Now has been working with local groups in Paraguay to advocate on behalf of Mainumby, a young girl who was forced by the Paraguayan government to give birth two years ago — when she was just 11 years old — after being repeatedly raped and impregnated by her stepfather.

As a result of giving birth at such a young age, Mainumby has experienced problems with her physical, mental and emotional health. The government has nevertheless not provided her with the public health care she needs. In addition, Mainumby has been a victim of bullying at school, and the authorities have not taken steps to stop the abuse.

Mainumby’s case is one of several highlighted in Equality Now’s advocacy report, “The World’s Shame-the Global Rape Epidemic: How Laws Around the World Are Failing to Protect Women and Girls from Sexual Violence.”

With support from the International Bar Association, the Ashurst law firm in New York, Advocates for International Development and many others, our report surveyed 82 legal systems, including those in 73 United Nations member states. Numerous gaps in laws, policies and practices were identified, including in many countries that are members of the UN Human Rights Council. Governments must do much more to ensure that strong laws are enacted or that inadequate ones are amended and enforced.

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This June, at the Council’s next session, countries will be holding their “annual full-day discussion on the human rights of women.” Top priority has been given to talking about accelerating efforts to eliminate violence against women — that means including the engagement of men and boys in preventing violence.

Bringing men into the discussion at the international level should not be difficult, since the vast majority of ambassadors to the UN are men, as are most of the lawmakers, prosecutors and judges around the world. But we need more than talk. It’s time to act. Currently, governments have repeatedly committed to ending all forms of violence against women and girls.

In September 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted a new set of universal goals, “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” which features achieving gender equality with a specific target of eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls in public and private spheres. Promises are easy to make.

One way to measure a country’s progress in achieving gender equality would be to see if it still has discriminatory laws.

In the Middle East and Russia, for example, there is legislation that permits a perpetrator of sexual violence to be exempted from punishment if he reaches a “settlement” — through marriage, financial or otherwise — with the victim or her family. This law enables perpetrators to enjoy impunity and the government to avoid taking responsibility for bringing the criminal to justice and providing the victim with a remedy.

Fortunately, there are moves underway in Jordan and Lebanon, thanks to advocacy by civil society and progressive parliamentarians, to change these laws.

Rape is always a violent act. Some countries, however, require evidence of other violence as an explicit element of the crime. This requirement sends mixed messages about the nature of rape. In a sign of progress, Bolivia is revising its penal code and will hopefully drop the additional violence element in its definition of rape.

While sexual attacks are sometimes carried out by strangers, in most circumstances the perpetrator is known by the victim; in many cases, it is a relative or the husband of the woman or girl. In some countries, the rape of a woman or a girl by her husband is explicitly legal. In India and a few other countries, marital rape remains legal even when the “wife” is a child “bride” and the “marriage” violates the minimum age of marriage laws.

Equality Now calls on all governments to meet their obligations and live up to their commitments to make gender equality a reality by improving their laws on sexual violence and ensuring victims get justice. The public can also take action on Equality Now’s campaigns with partners in particular countries.

With hundreds of millions of women and girls subjected to gender-based violence, we need every country to examine how its laws are drafted and carried out and how they can be revised to help ensure that the world equally values women and men, girls and boys.

Only then can governments claim they have met their obligations and commitments to their citizens under international law.


This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Antonia Kirkland is the legal equality program manager for Equality Now. She has a law degree from Rutgers University; a master of science from in gender studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science; and a B.A. in international relations from Brown University.

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One Major Way to End the Global Rape Epidemic: Through Laws
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