A Way to Help the World's Women

By Marianne Mollmann
Saturday, December 27, 2008

I have a project for Joseph Biden and Hillary Clinton to work on together: ending impunity for rape. Rape-conviction rates are appallingly low across the globe. I don't mean only in countries that many would think of as lacking good justice systems: Conviction rates hover just above 10 percent of complaints filed in the United States and are a measly 6 percent in Britain. Because the vast majority of rape victims don't file complaints, it does not take precise studies or statistics to conclude that most sexual assaults in most parts of the world end without punishment for the perpetrators.

Over the years, in the course of my work at Human Rights Watch, I have spoken with dozens of rape victims around the world, read rape-related court files from many countries and scrutinized legislation. Although most people agree that rape is bad, legislation and government action on sexual crimes are not always that clear. Indeed, rape seems to be graded on a scale from "unconscionable" through "bad luck" to "much deserved." Exactly where a particular incident falls on that scale often seems to depend on factors that include family status, sobriety and ethnicity. In all too many cases, laws and judicial systems have determined that forced sex is not really rape.

To understand this better, consider this short list of successful defenses:

It's not rape if she is my wife. Marriage is perhaps the most commonly used cover for rape, so internalized that many women themselves seem to accept it. When I asked a woman in the Dominican Republic in 2004 if her husband ever forced her to have sex, she shrugged and said: "I guess he is a bit violent. He rapes me at times." Unfortunately, this atrocity is often sanctioned by law. Some countries, such as Ethiopia and Indonesia, define rape as something that happens only outside of marriage. In many others, rape is defined more broadly but is interpreted by courts and police as excluding marital rape. The logic can be applied after the fact, too: Several countries, including Brazil and Libya, exonerate a perpetrator of rape if he agrees to marry the victim.

It's not rape if she is my daughter. Though unconscionable to many, incest is seen in some countries as either unfortunate or not all that forced. In Mexico, for example, the rape of a teenage girl by her father is defined as voluntary until it is proved otherwise. Under most state criminal codes in Mexico, incest is considered a crime against the family, not against the physical integrity of the victim, and the underage victim is initially considered as much a criminal as the adult perpetrator.

It's not rape if she was drunk. Over the years, Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented how prosecutors and courts are likely to treat testimony by rape victims with more suspicion than testimony regarding other types of crimes. Routinely, women are aggressively questioned about whether the intercourse was really involuntary, whether the victim somehow provoked or deserved the assault, and whether the assault even occurred. The mistrust is particularly pronounced when the victim admits to being anything other than completely sober before or during the attack. The frenzied media coverage in England last year of a controversial proposal to change the burden of proof in rape cases appeared to perpetuate the belief, which seemed to be widely held, that a drunk rape victim "had it coming."

It's not rape if my culture mandates intercourse. When the presumed next president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, stood trial on rape charges in 2006, he bolstered his defense with references to tradition and culture. Zuma testified that his accuser had signaled her arousal by wearing a knee-length skirt to his house and sitting with her legs crossed. He said that it is unacceptable in Zulu culture not to proceed to a sexual encounter once a woman is aroused. Zuma was acquitted, but regardless of the outcome, it is troubling that a high-level politician in any country, much less a country with epidemic levels of sexual violence, peddles the notion that women may mean yes even when they say no.

Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton can change this. During his time in the Senate, Biden has championed draft legislation that would make violence against women a foreign relations priority for the United States, through, for example, supporting legislative reform abroad and a victim-centered approach to violence. As a senator, Clinton supported this legislation. As vice president and secretary of state, Biden and Clinton could make central to U.S. foreign policy the fight against perpetrators' getting away with rape and other forms of violence against women. They should start by creating a coordinating office at the State Department to build on this work. Rape is bad no matter what country it takes place in, whatever the age or marital status of the victim. There is no other way to look at it.

Marianne Mollmann is director of women's rights for Human Rights Watch.

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