Define the problem

Article Date

20 January 2012

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

The U.S. Department of Justice’s announcement earlier this month that it is expanding its antiquated, 80-year-old definition of rape was welcome news.

Before January 2012, the word “rape” in the United States was defined as “carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” All other violent sexual attacks were not considered rape and as such were not factored into national statistics. They now will be.

Definitions matter. In this case, they ensure that comprehensive evidence on the prevalence and true nature of sexual and gender-based violence will play a role in shaping public debate, which in turn can light the political spark that leads to policy change. But definitions alone will not change behavior without the cultural and social will to meet them halfway.

Although the context is quite different, all of this got me thinking about the thousands of women around the world who are raped every day despite official definitions – and clear laws criminalizing such behavior – that are on the books in their respective countries. ICRW’s research has examined the many challenges in translating legal language into real changes in people’s lives in diverse countries such as Bangladesh, East Timor, Fiji, India and Vanuatu.

One persistent challenge is that traditional legal authorities, such as tribal chiefs, village elders, and religious leaders, do not keep pace with changes in the formal justice system’s response to sexual violence. A new law from the capital city can mean next to nothing in an area where the formal legal system has little reach or influence. This challenge points to the need for widespread education and training on how to effectively implement laws.

Moreover, rape remains one of the least reported and prosecuted crimes in the world, a result of real and perceived obstacles that prevent survivors of rape from reporting abuse or pursuing justice.

In Bangladesh, for instance, survivors can face retaliatory violence after disclosing experiences of rape. Some women have been forced to marry the men who attacked them. In Fiji, survivors of violence by police or military forces are blocked from pursuing justice by a new decree guaranteeing impunity to these perpetrators. And around the world, survivors of sexual violence are still unfairly stigmatized or even blamed for the violence they have suffered.

The women we meet in our research consistently assert that in addition to the effective functioning of the justice system, rape survivors also need services that will help them recover physically and emotionally. And there must be consistent efforts to prevent violence before it happens.

ICRW and our partner organizations around the world are working hard to promote the three-pronged solution of simultaneous advances in justice, services, and prevention. We need all the necessary ingredients to ensure we end sexual violence worldwide, and in the meantime, help survivors overcome the trauma of rape when it does occur. Otherwise, definitions and laws tucked away in books will continue to do little more than gather dust.