AMMAN, Jordan – When Aya* was 15, she was forced to marry the 24-year-old man who had raped her.
Her family agreed to the arrangement so that her rapist could evade jail time, and they could avoid a “scandal.” But after months of further abuse from her husband, Aya had enough. She decided to file for divorce and speak out about her situation.
“I’m a girl who was raped,” she wrote in an anonymous letter to the Jordanian Parliament and local media. “It’s clear to me now that he only wanted the marriage in order to leave prison and get rid of the sentence.”
Aya’s rapist had taken advantage of Article 308, a legal loophole that allowed offenders to be set free if they married their victims.
This month, about three years after Aya released her letter, Jordan’s lower house of Parliament voted to repeal Article 308. Two weeks later, Lebanon abolished its own “marry-your-rapist” law, Article 522. In July, Tunisia had done the same by repealing Article 227.
As the laws tumble throughout the region, activists are hoping this forward momentum will pressure other countries to follow in their footsteps.
“Hopefully, this is a domino effect,” Equality Now’s legal equality program manager, Antonia Kirkland, says. “There are some Gulf states, like Bahrain and Kuwait, which have this type of law, and we hope they’ll be next.”
Other nearby countries with “marry-your-rapist” laws include Palestine, Iraq, Syria and Algeria. The loophole is in place in several countries outside the Middle East and North African region, too.
Human Rights Watch reports that the Philippines, Tajikistan and a few Latin American countries also have similar laws. Equality Now released a report earlier this year that found “marry-your-rapist” loopholes also exist in some form in Greece, Russia, Serbia and Thailand, mainly in situations where the couple is in a sexual relationship and the girl is under the age of consent.
Changing the Law Is Not Enough
The problem, experts say, is that even in countries where these legal loopholes have been abolished, or never explicitly existed in the first place, the practice of allowing rapists to avoid jail time by marrying their victims is still prevalent.
“Unfortunately, in practice, it seems like this might still be happening whether or not it’s on the books,” Kirkland says. “Law enforcement or authorities are not going to implement the law if they see that the family wants the girl and the rapist to be married.”
For some families, exposing their daughter’s rape to the public gaze by prosecuting the rapist means risking social shame – a consequence that can sometimes lead to them killing her in the name of family honor. Marriage is the easier, more private solution.
To put this in perspective: While an average of 147 rape cases are reported in Jordan annually, experts say the real number is much higher since many victims don’t report the crime for fear they’ll be shunned by society or murdered by a family member in a so-called honor killing.
“A woman who is the victim of a sexual assault is actually considered responsible for the honor of the family and may have to get married to whoever assaulted her in order to protect that,” says Salma Nims, the secretary general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women (JNCW).
The Equality Now report found that in Afghanistan, while there is no provision in law, it’s common for a rapist to escape jail time if he or his family offers to marry the victim, or if he’s forgiven by the victim’s family.
Last year, in Malaysia – another country where there doesn’t appear to be a loophole legalizing the practice – the local media reported that a rapist was able to avoid jail time by marrying his 15-year-old victim after her parents agreed to the arrangement.
And, although Egypt abolished its “marry-your-rapist” law in 1999, Abaad MENA’s gender policy and program officer, Soulayma Mardam Bey, says the practice is still prevalent in some parts of the country.
“Working on laws or on policy change isn’t enough,” Bey says. “It has to be combined with work at the institutional level and the community level.”
Kirkland agrees. While getting rid of these loopholes is crucial to achieving equality and assuring victims that the law is on their side, abolishing them is only the first step in putting an end to the practice. The next step, they say, is sensitizing everyone who can play a part in combating it, from members of the public to judges, law enforcement officers and medical workers, as well as making sure that women and girls know their legal rights.
Kirkland says she hopes the recent trend of countries abolishing “marry-your-rapist” laws, “will spark that discussion and examination in other countries where it still happens in practice.”
What it really comes down to, she says, is raising awareness: “changing those social norms that say a woman or a girl isn’t as valuable as a man or a boy.”
*Name changed for privacy.