How Do Laws of Sexual Assault Differ Around the World?


The recent controversy in Hollywood regarding sexual harassment and sexual assault has raised concerns across the globe. While the US is now trying to write a law to tackle those issues at Capitol Hill, other countries like France are now trying to strengthen their existing laws. Yet what are the current regulations regarding violence against women? 

A recent study from the Washington Post examined four forms of violence – rape, marital rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment – for three years across 196 countries. Overall, they found that laws regarding marital rape and sexual harassment gave generally less legal protection to women, whereas rape has the strongest legal protection around the world. Indeed, the United Nations found that in 37 countries rape perpetrators are exempt from prosecution when they are married to, or marry afterwards, the victim.

Still, without surprise they also found that Europe and North America were the strongest in overall legal protections, even if they’re not perfect and still need improvement. Western Asia was the weakest region of the globe for legal protection regarding this issue, due in part to the fact that they have no laws against marital rape.

Yet, even if Europe and North America give more legal protection, a UN survey found that 23% of female undergraduate university students have experienced sexual assault and misconduct in the United States. Also, 82% of women parliamentarians in the Inter-Parliamentary Union have been victims of gestures and images of a sexist or humiliating sexual nature.

Having said that, let’s look closer at some countries’ laws regarding sexual assault and rape.

In France, rape, including marital rape, is punishable by 15 years to life imprisonment depending on the circumstances, yet sexual aggression excluding rape only results in up to 5 years imprisonment and a €75,000 fine. In the United States, each state has the possibility to have its own particular law regarding sexual assault. In Texas the felon can face up to 20 years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

Surprisingly, other countries in Europe including Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands treat rape as an issue of morality rather than violence and allow the perpetrator to escape any punishment by admitting their guilt and reaching a settlement with the victim.

In China, India and Indonesia, rape is legal if both parties are married and the rapist can also escape prosecution if they marry their victims. It is similar in Russia, Greece, Serbia and Thailand, but only if both parties were already in a relationship.

In Japan, the penal code was to be amended at the end of the year to impose a heavier penalty, raising the minimum prison term up to 5 years while keeping the maximum upper limit to 20 years.

Brazil is a country that recognised rape as a gender-neutral crime and punishes perpetrators with between 6 to 10 years imprisonment, while statutory rape was only criminalised in 2009. Meanwhile, Mexico is still tackling the rape culture as 91% of rapes are not reported and almost half of the female population will be victim of this crime.

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In the Middle East, in recent months women have been campaigning to change laws that make them marry their rapists including in Jordan, Tunisia and Lebanon. Legislation has now been passed in these three countries to end the marry-your-rapist law.

Even if women are offered some legal protection against sexual assault, it may not be enough on its own. Rape culture and the shame around it remain significant barriers to women wishing to speak out in some parts of the world. Perhaps it is here where further progress could be made.


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