Many countries are moving to repeal long-established laws that allow rapists to escape punishment if they marry their victims.
A handful of places have recently repealed these laws, including Tunisia, Morocco and, just last week, Jordan.
But these laws are still on the books in countries as far apart as the Philippines, Lebanon and Tajikistan. Purna Sen, policy director for UN Women, tells NPR's Ari Shapiro these laws were enacted in order to normalize illicit sexual contact by categorizing this conduct as part of the institution of marriage.
These laws enable societies to make sexual relations more respectable, as it is often considered problematic in some cultures, Sen said. The penal codes in these countries do not approach rape as violence or abuse, but focus more on the idea that sexual contact occurred outside of marriage.
"It's not been really distinct as rape, as force and abuse and violence, the way we think about it predominantly now; it's been more thought about [as] illicit sexual contact," Sen said. "And so the way to make that respectable is to put it within the institution of marriage."
Unlike other laws that were enacted years ago, Sen said these "marry your rapist" laws remain enforced around the world.
The repeal of these laws can be attributed to a growing global consensus that rape and sexual abuse is unacceptable. Sen said it is a significant trend that has taken off over the past 20 years.
Sen said this is a result of women's organizing and increased awareness among policymakers, most notably marked by a United Nations goal to remove all violence against women by 2030.
While the legal system allows rapists to find immunity, many women also feel pressure from their families to marry the men who abused them.
Sexual relations outside of marriage, even if they are forced, are "often interpreted as a slight or as a stain on a collective honor or integrity," Sen said.
"So it's often actually from their own families that women ... feel under pressure to marry the man who has abused them," she said. "They don't want to be dragged through court. They don't want it known that woman has become ... 'impure' in any way because that will then damage the prospects for her having a marriage that has some respectability for her family."
Sometimes women take their own lives rather than submit to this kind of a relationship. The suicide of a 16-year-old girl in Morocco prompted that country to rescind its law in 2014.
"Unfortunately, it was [at] the cost of that young girl's life, but for others who followed, it will hopefully be a much better situation," Sen said.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Many countries are coming to terms with laws that allow rapists to escape punishment if they marry their victims. A handful of places have recently repealed these so-called marry-your-rapist laws - Tunisia, Morocco and just last week Jordan. Purna Sen is policy director for U.N. Women and joins us to discuss this global trend. Welcome to the show.
PURNA SEN: Thank you. Good to be here.
SHAPIRO: These laws are still on the books in countries that are as far apart as the Philippines, Lebanon, Tajikistan, some Latin American countries. Why were these laws enacted in the first place?
SEN: These laws exist because what they do is they enable families and individuals and societies to make more respectable sexual relations, sexual interaction which otherwise would be problematic. It's not been really distinct as rape, as force and abuse and violence the way we think about it predominantly now. It's been more thought about - illicit sexual contact. And so the way to make that respectable is to put it within the institution of marriage.
SHAPIRO: We've all heard about old-fashioned laws on the books that are rarely, if ever, enforced. Is that the case with most of these marry-your-rapist laws, or are they actually often used?
SEN: Well, I think they vary. The extent of take-up varies from place to place, but it is a fact that they are used. So the fact that they remain on statute remains an obstacle to delivering justice for women who've been raped. So the rolling back of these laws is a very important and significant trend, and it's one that's really taken pace over the last 20 or so years.
Countries as wide apart as Argentina, Italy, France, Morocco - you mentioned, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Peru - they've all got rid of these laws. So it's not just a modern thing in a few countries that these laws exist or this thinking is prevalent. But it's actually been much broader, and what we're seeing now is an increase in the rate of change in these laws.
SHAPIRO: How do you explain this growing trend of repeal of these laws in places as different as South America, the Middle East, Asia, Europe?
SEN: Well, I think it's partly a reflection of women's organizing of an increase in awareness amongst policymakers that this sort of approach to what we now consider abuse and violence and rape is actually not acceptable anymore. And you know, states have committed - all states in the world have committed just two years ago to a global goal to get rid of all violence against women across the world by 2030. That's in the new goals that they set two years ago. Now, how is that possible if the laws allow rapists not to be held to account for their action? So I think you'll see an increasing trend and an increasing, I hope, speed of these laws where they remain - that they will be removed.
SHAPIRO: What do these women's families say about their daughters being forced to marry the men who raped them?
SEN: Well, you know, what I was saying earlier about the social understanding of sexual relations outside marriage, even if they're forced, is that it often is interpreted as a slight or as a stain on a collective honor and integrity. So it's often actually from their own families that women - young women included - feel under pressure to marry the man who has abused them. They don't want to be dragged through court. They don't want it known that a woman has become - and I'm using inverted commas here - to become impure in any way because that will then damage the prospects for having a marriage that has some respectability for her family.
So not only is it through the legal system that a rapist can find immunity, but unfortunately because of the social understanding of rape as illegitimate sexual relations, the girl's own family - a woman's own family may often be part of that dynamic that puts her under pressure to marry.
SHAPIRO: I understand there are also instances where women choose to take their own life rather than submit to this kind of a relationship.
SEN: That's right. There was a case in Morocco, a very famous case that got a lot of coverage. I think it was 2012 where a young woman - a 16-year-old girl who was raped - she was pressured to marry the guy who raped her. She was so unhappy that she took rat poison, and she committed suicide. That was a significant step that caused that country, its legislators and its activists to think about changing the law. And in 2014, Morocco rescinded that law. Unfortunately it was the cost of that young girl's life. But for others who followed, it will hopefully be a much better situation.
SHAPIRO: That's Purna Sen, policy director for U.N. Women. Thank you for joining us.
SEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.