Stop making excuses for sexual violence

When Amnesty launched My Body My Rights, our global campaign on sexual and reproductive rights, earlier this year, we were met by unfavourable headlines in the Moroccan media. It’s time to set the record straight, writes Aurelia Dondo, North Africa campaigner.

Our message was clear. Women and girls have the right to live free from sexual violence and have the right to bodily integrity. These rights are known in international law as sexual and reproductive rights. They are universal human rights and governments must ensure they are respected, protected and fulfilled. But some within the Moroccan media were quick to distort the message.

By depicting Amnesty International as an imperialist organization encouraging sexual misconduct, these media outlets twisted the debate and muddied the issue. In doing so, they disregarded the plight of the survivors of sexual violence we are campaigning for.

Women and girls have the right to live free from rape and other forms of sexual violence. Yet discriminatory and harmful provisions in Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian laws not only fail to protect survivors of sexual violence, they further stigmatize and victimize them.

Amina Filali was just 16 years old when she took her own life. A few months earlier, the Moroccan teenager had been forced to marry the man she said had raped her. Her death exposed the appalling reality that this marriage had been sanctioned by law.

Legal loopholes allow rapists to walk free

In January 2014, nearly two years after Amina’s death, the Moroccan parliament unanimously voted to amend the get-out clause that allowed men accused of rape to walk free by marrying their victim, if she was aged under 18. Sadly, similar provisions still exist in Tunisia and Algeria.

The very assumptions underlying such clauses are deeply flawed. They emphasize family honour and shame while dismissing the needs of survivors of sexual violence.

When we said that unmarried consenting adults should not be criminalized for having sex, we were met by accusations of sexual impropriety. Yet these types of laws discourage rape survivors from filing complaints out of fear of being themselves accused of illegal behaviour.

Laws based on “morality” and “decency” have been used against survivors of sexual violence. In a case that provoked outrage in Tunisia, a 27 year-old woman known only as Meriem Ben Mohamed said she was raped by two police officers in September 2012. Instead of investigating her complaint, the authorities accused her of indecency.

Somewhere to turn for help

Survivors of sexual violence often find they have nowhere to turn for help. We are campaigning to make sure that they not only have the support they need, but also have the means to get justice. If a woman or girl gets pregnant as a result of rape or incest, then she should have access to safe and legal abortion services. Being forced to carry such a pregnancy to term is a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Justice for survivors also means that police, judges and health workers are properly trained to respond in a sensitive, confidential and non-discriminatory way.

So let me ask this question: Is it ok to rape women and girls? Everyone will say no. However, when Amnesty campaigns for the rights of survivors of rape and other forms of sexual violence, we are accused of encouraging sexual misconduct. Saying you are against rape and then turning a blind eye to the plight of survivors of sexual violence is just empty rhetoric.

Amnesty International together with brave activists will stand by survivors of sexual violence, to at least ensure that the state protects rather than further victimizes them. So criticize, and let’s debate. Stigma, social taboos, bigotry or cultural relativism must be challenged when they stand in the way of women’s rights. The Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian authorities must abolish these discriminatory and harmful laws once and for all. They must also make sure that the legal, social and medical needs of survivors of sexual violence are met. As the tragic case of Amina showed the world, delays are costing lives. Join us, and say no more excuses, no more delays.