‘Marry the rapist’ laws are being repealed across the Middle East

Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon have scrapped laws that allow rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims

Laws that allow rapists to marry their victims in order to escape prosecution are being repealed in countries across the Middle East.

Within the last six weeks, parliaments in Tunisia, Lebanon and Jordan have all amended laws that provide legal loopholes for rapists to avoid punishment for their actions.

On 26 July, Tunisia closed such loopholes while passing a landmark law which aims to eliminate violence against women. Meanwhile, on 1 August, the lower house of Jordan’s parliament approved a repeal, now set to go to the upper house and the king before becoming law. And in Lebanon on 16 August a law was repealed that not only allowed rapists to escape prosecution by marriage, but also included loopholes for offences relating to sex with children aged 15-17 and seducing virgin girls into having sex with the promise of marriage.

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“Provisions like these are largely colonial-era relics and remain on the books in many other countries in the region and beyond,” said Rothna Begum, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

“Some permit exoneration for a range of offenses, including kidnapping, rape, and consensual sex with a child (statutory rape) if the perpetrator marries the victim.”

Such laws are thought to be inspired by the French Napoleonic Code of 1810, which allowed men who kidnapped women to escape prosecution if they married their victims. France only repealed the provision in 1994.

The latest set of repeals follows Morocco in 2014 and Egypt in 1999. But similar laws still exist across much of the Middle East and north Africa including Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Syria, and Palestine. In many countries, rape survivors are considered unmarriable.

These reforms are credit to the intense campaigning by women’s rights organisations in these countries

It is thought that pressure from women’s rights groups in the region helped lead to the reforms in Tunisia, Lebanon and – soon – in Jordan. Campaigners hope that other countries will follow suit but warn that work still needs to be done, even in countries where laws have been changed.

“These reforms are credit to the intense campaigning by women’s rights non-governmental organisations in these countries, but laws alone can’t change practices,” said Begum.

“Even if such provisions are removed, forced marriage may continue unofficially as it has in many countries. The authorities should take steps to change the discriminatory attitudes and stigma that fuel forced marriages of rape survivors to their rapists.”

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