Twenty countries still allow rapists to marry their victims to escape criminal prosecution, according to the UN’s annual state of world population report.
Russia, Thailand and Venezuela are among the countries that allow men to have rape convictions overturned if they marry the women or girls they have assaulted.
Dr Natalia Kanem, executive director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), which published the report on Wednesday, said such laws were “deeply wrong” and were “a way of subjugating women”.
“The denial of rights cannot be shielded in law. ‘Marry your rapist’ laws shift the burden of guilt on to the victim and try to sanitise a situation which is criminal.”
Dima Dabbous, director of Equality Now’s Middle East and Africa region, whose research is cited in the UNFPA report, said the laws reflected a culture “that does not think women should have bodily autonomy and that they are the property of the family. It’s a tribal and antiquated approach to sexuality and honour mixed together”.
Dabbous added that it is “very difficult to change [these laws] but it’s not impossible”. She said the law in Morocco was repealed following widespread outrage when a young woman killed herself after she was forced to marry her rapist. Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon and Tunisia followed suit.
However, Kuwait still allows a perpetrator to legally marry his victim with the permission of her guardian. In Russia, if the perpetrator has reached 18 and has committed statutory rape with a minor below 16, he is exempt from punishment if he marries the victim.
In Thailand, marriage can be considered a settlement for rape if the perpetrator is over 18 and the victim is over 15, if she “consented” to the offence and if the court grants permission for marriage.
Marriage laws and practices that subordinate women are widespread and difficult to root out, said the UNFPA, which reported that 43 countries have no legislation criminalising marital rape.
However, they are far from the only ways in which women and girls, people with disabilities and people of diverse sexual orientations are inhibited.
The report, which focuses on bodily autonomy – the ability to make choices about your body free from violence or coercion – highlighted that nearly half of women (45%) in 57 countries are denied the right to say yes or no to sex with their partner, use contraception or seek healthcare.
In Mali, Niger and Senegal, the situation is particularly harrowing. Fewer than one in 10 women make their own decisions about healthcare, contraception and sex with their partners.
“The fact that nearly half of women still cannot make their own decisions about whether or not to have sex, use contraception or seek healthcare should outrage us all,” said Kanem. “In essence, hundreds of millions of women and girls do not own their own bodies. Their lives are governed by others.”
More than 30 countries restrict women’s freedom outside the home, while girls and boys with disabilities are nearly three times more likely to be subjected to sexual violence, with girls at the greatest risk.
Education is key to improving bodily autonomy, said the report, while laws must be changed, and social norms must become more gender balanced. Health providers can also play a critical role.
“The denial of bodily autonomy is a violation of women and girls’ fundamental human rights that reinforces inequalities and perpetuates violence arising from gender discrimination,” said Kanem. “It is nothing less than an annihilation of the spirit, and it must stop.”