End Rape Culture: Legal Frameworks in Africa & MENA Must Empower Women and Support Survivors

Richard Potts/Flickr

Rape is an unlawful sexual act that includes the demonstration of any sexual activity without the consent of a person. Commonly, rape is believed to be carried out by force or threat. However, it must be noted that rape does not necessarily have to include coercion. This was recently highlighted by Dubravka Šimonović, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women in a report on the harmonization of criminal laws that are needed to stop rape. The report, published on June 28, 2021, emphasized the need to clearly focalize the definition of rape around the matter of “consent.” Nonetheless, many countries around the world establish their definition of rape on the use of force on the victim, which requires the victim to prove the use of coercion in order to seek criminal justice. This is problematic. Rape in general is criminalized in a large number of countries, yet this did not contribute to its limitation.

As in most cases, victims do not report rape for multiple reasons, and the perpetrators often enjoy impunity. This is because laws around the world and their limitations lead to the fact that it is still a widespread crime. This is particularly an issue across the Middle East and Africa. According to international law, rape is a human rights violation and is a form of gender-based violence thus states are responsible to prosecute perpetrators. About 90 percent of rape victims are female. That means women and girls are disproportionately impacted. Despite the fact that rape has been criminalized within international law, criminal law, and the laws of many countries across the Middle East and Africa, patriarchal norms and other legal frameworks often suppress the voices of survivors. Victims who live in such “honor-based” societies often fear reporting rape.

Over time, many countries developed more advanced policies and laws on the criminalization of rape. However, the struggle remains within the implementation and function of developed national laws on rape to incorporate international standards. For instance, in 43 states across the the Middle East region and Africa, marital rape is still not actually considered a crime. This includes Iraq, Jordan, Nigeria, Syria, South Sudan, Egypt, and Lebanon.

Furthermore, according to UNFPA, the criminal codes of some countries state that marrying the rapist could overturn the conviction of rape and any action declared from the court against the perpetrator will be void. This is still the case in Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Libya, Angola, Algeria, and Cameroon. In 1999, Egypt overturned this law from its criminal code; but the practice is still being applied outside the court system. Meanwhile, criminal codes in Sudan and Mauritania do not even properly define rape or include it as a crime at all within its laws. This sometimes also allows rape to be weaponized in conflict, as well as society.

There is also the issue of weaponized rape in conflict, as such is currently happening in Tigray, Ethiopia. Individuals who work within legitimate legal frameworks and justice systems in Africa and the Middle East region should be provided with briefings on international basic human rights laws and statutes concerning rape and assault. This incorporates testing myths and generalizations that continue to obstruct justice and gender equity in rape cases. The only way to combat rape and minimize the psychological and physical impact on victims in vulnerable regions is to develop legal frameworks that better empower women and survivors.

Basmala Elbeblawy
Basmala Elbeblawy is a research and social media intern at African Women Rights Advocates (AWRA). Basmala graduated in 2021 from the British University in Egypt (BUE) with a Bachelor's Degree in political science. The young feminist is an avid skydiver who is equally passionate about human rights. She previously interned at Al-Ahram, the most widely circulated newspaper in Egypt and one of the oldest running print publications in the Middle East and North Africa. She's also participated in BUE's Model United Nations program.