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Marrying Your Rapist: Laws Restricting Bodily Autonomy and Global Gender Equality

Trigger Warning: This article contains themes of sexual assault, violence, and suicide which readers may find triggering. Reader discretion is therefore advised.

The fight for gender equality is a battle far from its end and the United Nations and its members continue to strive towards policies in order to achieve this goal. UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted the issue brilliantly at the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in 2020 when he remarked that women across the globe, on average, enjoy 75 percent of the legal rights of men.

There are many factors contributing to gender inequality today, a significant one being the lack of bodily autonomy for many women around the world. Lack of autonomy spawns the dis-empowerment of women as a lack of physical control over sexual and reproductive choices often leads to diminished control in other areas of life.

While large companies pride themselves on the appointment of women in influential positions, when so many women throughout the world are denied the choice on matters surrounding sexual intercourse, motherhood, or education, their chances of gaining power in the workforce are unlikely. Indeed, in the mid-19th century, Lucy Stone, an American suffragist and abolitionist, put this simply:

“It is very little to me to have the right to vote, to own property, etc., if I may not keep my body, and its uses, in my absolute right. Not one wife in a thousand can do that now, and so long as she suffers this bondage, all other rights will not help her to her true position”.

In 2015, all UN Member States endorsed the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in which achieving "gender equality and empower all women and girls” featured as fifth of the 17 global goals. This goal of empowerment, however, seems to contradict laws still in place across the world that systematically diminish the powers, undermine the rights, and spoil the futures of women and girls.

For instance, 20 countries still permit reduced sentencing for the crime of rape when the perpetrator marries the victim. These "marry your rapist" laws derive their origin from the belief that marriage allows the victim to be shielded from the intense shame that the assault would bring to her family. Thus, the rapist is apparently doing the victim and her family a favour. In many cases, the victim has no choice in the matter and is forced into a marriage with her abuser in which she faces compounding the physical and mental abuse she has suffered.

Not only do these laws hinder the UN’s ability to reach the 2030 gender equality target but they cause sustained and harrowing personal damage to thousands of women worldwide. For many of these women, a future shackled to their abuser is one that is simply too horrific to face. In 2021, when gender equality is supposedly a mere nine years away, how many more women must die at the hands of these fundamentally unequal laws before they are repealed?

Equality Now, a Non-Governmental Organisation campaigning for the removal of these and other similar laws, and for the empowerment of women across the globe, has managed to overturn many "marry your rapist" laws since the NGO's establishment in 1992. In Morocco, it took until 2014 to repeal such laws when 16-year-old Amina Filali committed suicide after she was forced to marry her rapist.

Since Morocco repealed its law, NGOs like Equality Now continue to fight for more countries to follow suit. After similar laws were repealed by Tunisia, Jordan, and Lebanon in 2017, Equality Now Senior Advisor Samira Atallah stated,

“Today Parliament sent a message that rape is a crime and will be treated as a crime. This message should be made loud and clear with public and legal education to ensure that violations no longer occur under the pretext of protecting 'family honour'."

Though these laws are gradually being repealed, according to Lebanon’s Ministry of Justice, 159 rapists had used this law to avoid punishment between 2010 and 2013 alone.

These laws are only one of many ways that legal systems fail women. Not only are these marriages seen as "get out of jail free" cards but 43 countries still lack legislation prohibiting marital rape, thus making life harder for women trapped in these marriages. As a result, many women still struggle to understand that their husband does not have rights to their body.

Target 5.6 of the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals is to achieve sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights for all. As part of this, demographic and health surveys were undertaken in 57 countries, most of which were in Sub-Saharan Africa, to aid efforts to understand the global state of bodily autonomy. These surveys were funded by the United States Agency for International Development and international organisations such as United Nations Population Fund. They also mark the first time an international framework has measured sexual and reproductive health in ways which look beyond services available to women and instead focus on female choice and bodily autonomy. The three questions asked were:

  1. whether participants made their own decisions about health care,

  2. if they could make similar decisions about contraception, and

  3. whether they felt able to say no to their partner if they did not want to engage in sexual intercourse.

Though a step forward in itself, the survey highlighted that only 55 percent of girls and women were able to make their own decisions in the three areas constituting possession of "bodily autonomy". Results showed that little more than one in two women had what was deemed full bodily autonomy.

It is clear that women are still treated unequally all over the world and that this limitation is not only a result of the patriarchy entrenched in society but its manifestation within our legal systems too. Hopes for emancipation in the extra-legal sphere are dashed by such laws which continue to exist and systematically force women down. How can we expect women to gain equality socially when in so many places they are fundamentally inferior in the eyes of the law?


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