UN calls for justice as countries still fail rape survivors
The United Nations (UN) has adopted a text that urges countries to provide support and access to justice to survivors of gender-based violence.
It is the first time the UN has passed a standalone resolution recognising rape in peacetime, which was met with cries of joy and applause from people who attended the vote on September 2.
Diplomats at the assembly highlighted the “unacceptable barriers to accessing assistance, justice and reparation” faced by survivors of sexual assault beyond the trauma they have already experienced, as well as the stigma surrounding rape and the culture of “victim-blaming.”
The resolution also emphasises the need to tackle conflict-related sexual violence. Reports continue to surface of rape being used as a weapon in Tigray, the Sahel region, Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine, where it is used to subjugate and terrorise local communities and is vastly under-reported.
It is an historic, important move by the UN, however it is not legally binding under international law.
The countries below have huge gaps in legal support and other provisions for survivors of sexual violence and highlight the different ways women are being failed by the justice system.
Police in India frequently resist filing initial reports to start investigating sexual assaults, particularly in cases where the victim is from a poor community or a “lower caste” family. If the perpetrator is from a wealthy or influential community authorities will sometimes pressure the victim’s family to settle without an official investigation. A report by Human Rights Watch found an example where police detained and beat a rape survivor and her father to force them to change their statements.
The “two-finger” test – where doctors attempt to determine whether rape has taken place or not by inserting two fingers into a person’s vagina to gauge the laxity of the vaginal muscles – is still performed around the country despite bans in several states.
Marital rape is not considered a crime, as unwilling sexual intercourse with a wife over fifteen years of age is exempt from India’s legal definition of rape. In May this year Delhi’s high court failed to deliver a verdict on outlawing marital rape after two judges expressed opposing views.
According to a survey by India’s National Family Health Survey (NFHS), around 99% of cases of sexual violence are not reported to the police, and in many of these instances the perpetrator is the husband of the victim.
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Those who advocate for legal and human rights, particularly women, face threats and intimidation. Rita Manchanda, Consultant Research Director at South Asia Forum for Human Rights, says this is enabled by the government. Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), Yogi Adityanath, “has the highest record of anti-terror laws, particularly against women defending human rights. In places like UP there is just no counter-narrative. If you stand up to speak, soon enough there’ll be a knock on your door, and you will be in jail tomorrow, often under non-bailable offences.”
Since the Taliban regained control of the country in 2021, Afghan women have been barred from schools and universities, forced out of jobs, and are unable to travel anywhere without a male companion.
Local journalists report that police stations are not filing complaints raised by women, including incidents of domestic violence. Prisoners convicted of gender-based violence have been released from jail. Most of the country’s women’s shelters have been closed, forcing women to return to their family homes, to live with shelter staff, or on to the streets. Additionally staff from women’s shelters, lawyers, judges and women’s rights defenders face threats and violence.
The UN has received reports of the Taliban’s use of rape as a weapon. Earlier this month the Taliban arrested a woman who accused former Interior Ministry spokesman Saeed Khosti of rape.
In June 2022 the US Supreme Court reversed Roe vs Wade, a 1973 ruling that gave women the right to have an abortion. Most abortions are now banned in at least 12 states, while in 11 other states there are legal proceedings in place to attempt stopping the ban from taking effect. In states where it is banned there are no exceptions for rape. In Wisconsin it is a crime for a doctor to perform an abortion, unless there is a life-threatening risk.
Since Roe vs Wade was overturned there have been reports of software companies selling data that tracks people’s visits to abortion clinics. In August the US Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit against Kochava for making this type of data available for sale.
The United States Federal Criminal Code has a marital exception to statutory rape of minors between the ages of 12-16. In other words, the law condones sex with a child of this age if they are married. More than 40% of women in the US who have been raped were under 18 when the assault took place.
A 2018 report by Thomson Reuters named the US as one of the world’s 10 most dangerous countries for women, citing the #MeToo movement which began on social media in 2006 and later grew to expose widespread sexual harrassment, gender discrimination and stigmatisation in many industries, most famously film and the arts.
In 2021, a number of femicides including the abduction, rape and killing of Sarah Everard by a police officer led to calls that the UK is experiencing an epidemic of violence against women. The excessive force used against women at a peaceful vigil held for Everard served to highlight the sexist, violent behaviour of an institution that is failing in its purpose to protect victims of crime and vulnerable people in society.
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The government has attempted to stamp out protest by giving the police new powers to stop and search protesters, while the recently passed Nationality and Borders Act will prevent people fleeing violence from getting citizenship, placing women in vulnerable situations into destitution where they are at great risk of rape and other forms of abuse.
Rape prosecutions have fallen by 70% since 2018. Between 2020-21, just 1.3% of rape cases recorded by police in England and Wales resulted in a suspect being charged.
“Rape has been practically decriminalised,” says Lisa Longstaff of Women Against Rape. “While calling for victims to come forward, implying that it is we who are holding back justice, [the police] have responded to the avalanche of reports by discrediting the victims and closing cases.”
South Africa has one of the highest numbers of reported rapes in the world. Research by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) showed that cases of domestic violence and femicide are very high nationally. Women and girls living in rural areas report child marriage, abduction for marriage and polygamy frequently leading to domestic violence. The report found a lack of support for victims with only a fraction of requests for protection granted, which in many of these cases consisted of instructing the abuser to sleep in another room.
Researchers and medical professionals have raised the alarm over a lack of reporting and action on cases of female genital mutilation, a procedure where female genitals are either partially or totally removed for cultural reasons including “increasing marriageability”. Often performed on young girls between infancy and adolescence, it leads to multiple health problems.
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