News / Africa

In Africa, Criminalizing Marital Rape Remains Controversial

FILE - Apollonie, a Congolese counselor, speaks with a rape victim in the HEAL Africa hospital in Goma.
FILE - Apollonie, a Congolese counselor, speaks with a rape victim in the HEAL Africa hospital in Goma.
Anne Look
In about half of sub-Saharan African countries, there is no law specifically saying a man can't force his wife to have sex with him.  In at least three countries, laws don't allow women to bring rape charges against their husbands.  Efforts to criminalize marital rape have been controversial, and the results have been mixed.

Sub-Saharan African countries have taken several approaches to criminalizing what is known as spousal, or marital, rape since the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women recognized it as a form of gender-based violence in 1980.

South Africa was one of the first.  In 1993, legislators removed an existing legal provision that exempted husbands from rape charges "by reason of [a woman's] consent in marriage."  To make it extra clear, the new law also stated that "a husband may be convicted of the rape of his wife."
 
Since then, nearly 20 other African countries have taken similar steps.

At the other end of the spectrum are Nigeria, Ethiopia and Kenya, where husbands are exempt.  The laws in those countries say that rape can only happen outside of wedlock.
 
And then there are the countries like Senegal, where there is no mention of it in the penal code.

Senegalese lawyers specializing in women's rights told VOA they can't recall anyone ever testing it out.

The Association of Women Lawyers in Senegal runs a free, walk-in legal aid clinic in Dakar.  
An attorney there, Jihonda Joseph Mane, says he has had clients seeking to divorce husbands who were raping them.
 
"One of them told me her husband is violent.  He was beating her.  At night, she doesn't want him to touch her, but he is stronger and he rapes her so she wanted a divorce.  But she forbid me from putting any of that in the divorce request," said Mane.

Statistics are difficult.  Rape and domestic violence are underreported in Senegal and throughout the continent.  Even in the countries that have criminalized marital rape, few people actually consider it a crime.
 
Ndeye Diagne runs a counseling and crisis center for a non-governmental organization in the city of Kaolack. She says she has seen it all, including men beating their wives for trying to refuse sex.
 
She explained how marital rape typically comes up.
 
"The woman gives birth and the husband won't wait the traditional 40 days. Women try to refuse because they have stitches or have just had a cesarean. Because of our traditions, these women don't want to denounce their husbands or take them to court. Instead they come to us and ask us to mediate to explain to their husbands the dangers of infection or internal damage," said Diagne.

Diagne says deeply entrenched religious and social values say a woman should be sexually submissive to her husband but "health trumps all."
 
 In Uganda, the clause against marital rape is one of the most controversial parts of the Marriage and Divorce bill put before parliament earlier this year.
 
The proposal gives a wife the right to say no to sex, but only in certain circumstances, like right after childbirth or if she suspects her husband has a sexually transmitted disease.
 
Rita Achiro is Executive Director of the Uganda Women's Network, which has lobbied for the bill.
 
"You know, there's the African thing that your husband can't rape you.  They will tell you how can your husband rape you?  It's an entitlement.  That's the belief people have, so we are still going round in circles trying to safeguard women using conditions under which she can deny the other sex.  Ideally, it shouldn't happen like that, there shouldn't be conditions. Rape is rape," said Achiro.

In the countries that have made laws against marital rape, the punishments vary widely. They include fines and prison time, anywhere from eight days in Burundi to life imprisonment in Zimbabwe.  However, activists say sentencing requirements are not respected.  Few women come forward and even fewer cases are actually prosecuted.
 
There is a lot of cultural pressure to resolve these so-called "domestic matters" in the family through mediation.  Many women can also simply not afford to put their husbands, the primary breadwinners, in jail.

So why bother passing a law against marital rape?

Here in Senegal, some lawyers and counselors working with battered women say it's not a priority, at least not right now.  However, others across the continent say "getting it down in black and white" sends a strong message that "a woman is not her husband's property."

You May Like

Could Nemtsov Threaten Putin in Death as in Life?

Dynamic and debonair opposition leader had supported liberal economic reforms, criticized Russian president's aggression in Ukraine More

Oil Smuggling Highlights Challenges in Shutting Down IS Finances

Pentagon spokesman says Islamic State 'certainly continues to get revenue from the oil industry black market' but that airstrikes have made a dent More

India Focuses on Infrastructure, Investment to Propel Economy

Government expects economy to grow at 8 to 8.5 percent in next fiscal year More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More