20 MARCH 2017

According to the UN, one in three women will experience some form of physical or sexual violence during their lifetime, irrespective of country, age or background. And it’s estimated that around the world, one in 10 girls – around 120 million — will have experienced rape or sexual assault by the time they reach the age of 20.

In a new advocacy report by Equality Now, “The World’s Shame – The Global Rape Epidemic”, laws relating to rape and sexual assault are examined in numerous countries. Serious failures in many of these laws – which are supposed to provide survivors with access to justice – are highlighted in the hope that shining a spotlight on this issue will spark dialogue and reduce the pervasiveness of sexual violence.

For the report, 82 legal systems including within 73 UN member states around the world were surveyed by legal practitioners around the world. Carrying out the examination between 2014 to 2015, the research found that despite the prevalence of sexual violence in all countries, there exists substantial gaps in laws, policies and practices. This includes instances when laws are insufficient or inconsistent, not systematically enforced, and may even promote violence, such as when a rapist can marry his victim and escape punishment.

In some countries, the rape of a woman or girl by her husband is legal, and in a few instances marital rape remains legal even where the “wife” is a child “bride” and the “marriage” is in violation of the minimum age of marriage laws.

We found legislation in Asia, Europe and the Middle East that permits a perpetrator to be exempted from punishment if he reaches a “settlement” – financial or otherwise – with the victim or her family. This promotes the notion that not all rape is rape, and enables perpetrators to avoid taking responsibility, in law or in practice, for their actions.

The report also identified jurisdictions where rape is treated as an issue of morality rather than of violence. Some legal provisions incorporate inappropriate language such as honor, humiliation, outrage, modesty, chastity or morality, which devalues the survivor’s experience of the crime and can result in lesser punishment of the perpetrator if the crimes are taken seriously at all.

There are other instances in which legal provisions require witness corroboration or other forms of overly burdensome evidence, making the chance of gaining a successful conviction almost impossible.


While sexual attacks are sometimes carried out by strangers, in the majority of situations the perpetrator is known by his victim, and in many cases it is the woman or girl’s husband. Many survivors of sexual violence never report their abuse. Of those who do, deep-rooted prejudices against women and girls, both within judicial systems and the wider society, can make it extremely hard for survivors to gain the justice they deserve.

To bring an end to this epidemic of sexual violence, attitudes and behaviours need to change, both in public and private. The issue of sexual violence must be addressed at every level of society, and governments need to spearhead concerted efforts to amend unjust laws and policies, and to make sure that adequate laws are devised, enacted and enforced.

Governments have repeatedly committed to ending all forms of violence against women and girls, and this includes sexual violence.

Equality Now is calling on all governments to meet their obligations and live up to their commitments to finally make gender equality a reality by improving their laws on sexual violence and ensuring victims get justice. People can add their voices to this call by signing Equality Now’s global petition, which will be delivered to governments before the June 2017 UN Human Rights Council meeting.

Ensuring victims’ have access to justice goes far beyond legal reform. It also requires wide reaching institutional and cultural change in countries across the world. We need to do more to raise public awareness about the scale of the problem; improve the way that laws are drafted and implemented and the way violations are reported; and deter gender-based violence from happening in the first place.

The Fawcett Society is committed to working internationally and in the UK to tackle violence against women and girls. Read more about our campaign Face Her Future, which calls for laws that protect and safeguard the rights of all women in the UK.

Antonia Kirkland, Equality Now ABOUT AUTHOR 

Leading on Legal Equality, Antonia Kirkland oversees Equality Now’s work to ensure that the human rights of women and girls are upheld by governments throughout the world, and that they are given equal treatment and protection.