From Morocco to Denmark: Rape survivors around the world are forced to marry attackers

By — May 2, 2013

In March 2012, a 16-year-old girl named Amina Filali killed herself by drinking rat poison. She had been raped and forced—by Moroccan law—to marry the man who had raped her.

Nearly 10 months later, after a wave of demonstrations and sit-ins across the country protesting Filali’s death, the Moroccan legislature made plans in January to amend Article 475 of the penal code—the section that allows rapists to marry their victims in order to escape punishment.

There is no question that this is a huge step forward for women’s rights in Morocco. But it’s just the beginning of the reform that needs to happen for all rape victims in Morocco to be treated as equal citizens. The crime of rape is still legally tied to the victim’s marital status and perceived sexual activity. On the one hand, the law does not recognize rape within a marriage as a punishable crime, as sex is seen as “owed” to a husband; on the other, it adheres to sexist notions of “purity” by meting out a double punishment if the rapist has “taken” the victim’s virginity.

Protesters hold an image of Amina Filali, who died by suicide after being forced to marry her rapist.

And the sort of legal practice that forces victims to marry their rapists is not unique to Morocco. As recently as 1997, 15 Latin American countries allowed rapists to avoid prison time by marrying their victims. A March 1997 New York Times story explained that, as of its writing, Costa Rica required even less: Its laws exonerated any rapist who expressed an “intention” to marry the woman he had raped, even if that woman did not accept his offer.

Karen Asare, a spokeswoman at Equality Now, told WMC’s Women Under Siege that Costa Rica, as well as Guatemala, Peru, Uruguay, and Argentina have amended these laws over the past few years. Panama repealed its law in 2008, with a new code of criminal procedures that, according to a report by the U.S. State Department removed the provision “that a perpetrator can marry a victim who is at least age 14 and reduce the charge.” A similar report states that Ecuador had such a law as of 2008. And according to a report submitted to the United Nations’ Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 2007, Brazil repealed its law a few years earlier, in 2005.

But many nations still have rape-marriage policies that force the survivor to marry her perpetrator in effect. These include Venezuela in Latin America, Indonesia in Asia, Cameroon and Chad in Africa, and Denmark and Russia in Europe. Despite a common perception of Scandinavian countries being progressive in their human rights policies, a 2011 Amnesty International report indicates that Denmark’s legislation “provides that if the perpetrator enters into or continues a marriage or registered partnership with the victim after the rape, it gives grounds for reducing or remitting the punishment.”

In the Arab world, at least Algeria, Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, to which Jordanian law applies, have similar laws as well.

“I suspect every Arab country has such an article in its criminal code,” Lama Abu-Odeh, professor of comparative and foreign law at Georgetown Law, told WMC’s Women Under Siege. “Most criminal codes in the Arab world have been copied from each other with minor variations,” she explained.

Egypt repealed a law in 1999 that allowed rapists to walk free if they married their victim, and Ethiopia repealed a similar law as recently as 2005. According to Samer Muscati, a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, Libya also gives its judges the discretion to facilitate marriage between rapists and victims. When asked whether the Libyan revolution has changed this ability, Muscati said he believes that judges can still exercise it, though he is not aware of a case since the revolution in which this particular judicial discretion was used.

Indeed, in Libya and elsewhere, judicial and customary practices may allow rapists to marry their victims even when the letter of the law does not. Legal codes alone do not indicate how prevalent the practice truly is. Law enforcement agencies may pressure women to marry their attackers rather than press charges. For example, in Eritrea, according to a 2011 State Department human rights report, authorities often respond to rape reports by encouraging the rapist to marry the victim. And pressure from authorities can go a long way.

In India, a terrible parallel to Filali’s story played out in December 2012: A 17-year-old girl committed suicide after being gang-raped. Prior to her death, police had refused to register her complaint and had pressured her to marry one of her attackers. Although the officers in that case were later punished, their actions betray the dangerous bias that governments and their agencies have against rape survivors—regardless of what policies are in place.

And in Afghanistan, custom plays a large role. This was apparent in the case of a woman named Gulnaz who became pregnant after a man raped her—and who was then herself imprisoned for adultery. Her case, and the fact that a victim can be jailed for the crime she had to endure, gained international attention in December 2011, when President Hamid Karzai agreed to release Gulnaz. Although the BBC reported that her release was not on the condition that she marry her attacker, she told reporters that she may end up marrying him anyway, pressured by tradition.

While that tradition may be tied to religion, said Judith Tucker, a professor of Arab studies at Georgetown University and the author of Women, Family, and Gender in Islamic Law, it “doesn’t really have a root in the schools of Islamic law.”

Still, back in Morocco, where the young Filali was forced to marry her rapist, religion may have played a role. According to Nada Rifki, a Moroccan women’s rights activist and writer for GlobalGirl Media, a nonprofit that trains teenage girls around the world in journalism, “Most of the men in our very patriarchal Muslim society will never marry a woman who was touched by another man.”

“Since I was a child,” Rifki said, “I was taught that, along with all the other girls in my society.”

Because of the shame associated with rape, she explained, many Moroccans consider marriage to one’s rapist the only viable solution for a victim. And until that notion changes, young girls like Filali may continue to opt for suicide over a lifetime of living with the men who violated them.