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Countries are Getting Rid of their “Marry the Rapist” Laws

Lebanon recently became the latest Arab state to repeal laws on the books that allowed rapists to escape punishment…if they married their victims.

Lebanon follows Morocco, Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia which have all repealed similar laws in the past few years.

Morocco repealed it’s marry the rapist law in 2014 after a 16 year old young woman swallowed rat poison after she was forced to marry the man who raped her at knife point. The case brought international attention to the law in Morocco where the government received criticism from the UN for it’s stance on violence against women and the country’s victim blaming after the case became public.

Meanwhile, in Turkey last November, the government proposed exonerating 3,000 men accused of rape if they married their victims but public outcry ended that plan.

Still  despite the obvious violence that underlines these laws, there are 13 countries that continue to allow rapists to marry their victims to escape punishment.
Credit: Alyson Hurt/NPR

How were these laws created in the first place?

Such laws come about in an attempt to normalize illicit sexual acts by categorizing them within the institution of marriage. Rape and sexual abuse in some cultures where ‘marry the rapist’ laws are prevalent is not viewed as an act of violence or abuse but rather a sexual act committed outside of marriage. In order to atone for the illicit sexual activity, penal codes rectify the issue but normalizing it within the confines of marriage. With marriage, the rape is essentially erased.

These laws fall steeply behind a cultural shift women’s rights activists are trying to advocate for globally. Rape is not sex, rape is an act of violence where the perpetrator displays power over the survivor. ‘Marry the rapist’ laws are stuck in archaic definitions of sexual violence.

The abolition of these laws is clearly a step in the right direction for women’s rights in Lebanon, but this move can also be understood in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The abolition of such laws is considered a win for the dignity of all women and is an important stepping stone in achieving Sustainable Development Goal 5 by 2030.

The SDGs are a set of targets and indicators that UN member states are expected to use to frame their policies and agendas until 2030. There are 17 goals in total and goal number 5 is widely known as the “Gender Equality Goal.” Within SDG 5, there are 9 targets and each target has one or two indicators that measure the progress of that target. For example, one target under which repealing ‘marry the rapist’ laws are an indication of progress towards achieving the goal is:

Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.

The indicator is:

Proportion of ever-partnered women and girls aged 15 years and older subjected to physical, sexual or psychological violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months, by form of violence and by age.

Forcing a woman to marry her rapist is a form of violence against women and forced marriage. By abolishing ‘marry the rapist’ laws, states are taking part in the dismantling of a legal system that perpetuates violence against women.

To be sure, achieving the totality of SDG 5will take more than simply changing a few laws. True gender equality will require a major cultural shift all over the world. Repealing ‘marry the rapist’ laws are a step in recognizing and shifting rape culture, but societies must also enforce the shift in culture in order for change to occur. This is true for all other goals of SDG 5. (For example, ensuring women’s participation in decision making of all levels of political, politic and economic life is more than simply enforcing a quota in parliament.)

Lebanon’s abolition of its ‘marry the rapist’ law is not to be overlooked as a step towards gender quality and achieving SDG 5 by 2030. There is, however, much more that needs to happen in order for gender equality to be a reality. The world needs a cultural shift, not just legal solutions.