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

    Wife of IS Leader Charged in Death of US Hostage

    Suspect allegedly admitted to being responsible for American aid worker Kayla Mueller, who officials say was sexually abused and ‘owned’ by one IS member

    Year of the Monkey Could Prove Economic Balancing Act for China

    China is up against a tricky situation on the financial front, facing the need to fight capital flight while also stopping a further slide of foreign currency reserves

    Runners Attempt 26-mile South Pole Marathon in Sub-Zero Temperatures

    How alluring is running 26.2 miles at 10,000 feet when it’s minus 31 Celsius out?

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenyai
    X
    February 08, 2016 4:30 PM
    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video New Hampshire Voters Are Independent, Mindful of History

    Once every four years, the northeastern state of New Hampshire becomes the center of the U.S. political universe with its first-in-the-nation presidential primary. What's unusual about New Hampshire is how seriously the voters take their role and the responsibility of being among the first to weigh in on the candidates.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Bhutanese Refugees in New Hampshire Closely Watching Primary Election

    They fled their country and lived in refugee camps in neighboring Nepal for decades before being resettled in the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire -- now the focus of the U.S. presidential contest. VOA correspondent Aru Pande spoke with members of the Bhutanese community, including new American citizens, about the campaign and the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric of some of the candidates.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video Sanders, Clinton Battle for Young Democratic Vote

    Despite a narrow loss to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in last week's Iowa Democratic caucuses, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders secured more than 80 percent of the vote among those between the ages of 18 and 29. VOA correspondent Aru Pande talks to Democrats in New Hampshire about who they are leaning towards and why in this week's primary.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.