Criminal Law and Procedure
last updated 10 February 2009

Many women seek recourse from their criminal justice systems for sexual assault. Criminal justice systems around the world vary dramatically in their response to crimes of sexual violence. Some have undertaken efforts to improve their response to those crimes through better evidence gathering and increased respect for and protection of victims. In many countries in CEE/FSU, reform efforts are underway to broaden the definition of sexual assault to include acts other than forced intercourse; to minimize the procedural obstacles encountered by victims of sexual assault, such as the requirement that the victim file a complaint to initiate a prosecution, particularly in cases of marital rape, or processes that require victims to repeat their stories on multiple occasions; and to repeal discriminatory laws that exonerate perpetrators of sexual assault if they later marry their victims. From International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, Women 2000: An Investigation into the Status of Women's Rights in Central and South-Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States (9 November 2000).

Criminal proceedings can be intensely difficult experiences for sexual assault victims. A criminal trial can become a trial of the victim's behavior—the victim may be questioned about the clothes she wore or her prior sexual activity; she may be viewed less credibly if she was not a virgin, did not physically resist the attack, or if her attacker did not use physical force; she may be disbelieved if she is a prostitute. As former Special Rapporteur Coomaraswamy and Lisa Kois have explained:

Unlike any other crime, women who are raped are blamed for the crimes committed against them; they are publicly chastised, disbelieved, accused of having ulterior motives, and subject to degrading questions with often pornographic overtones. . . . . In addition to the violence of the act, the loss of power and control over one's own body, which victims/survivors report to be one of the fundamental experiences of rape, is often re-experienced throughout the judicial proceedings. During the course of her testimony, the survivor will be forced to dwell on every detail of the attack and to reveal intimate details of her life. Her credibility will be attacked and her reputation challenged. Moreover, some feminist scholars have pointed out the pornographic posturing of many cross-examinations. Even if the state manages to succeed in getting a conviction, judges in rape cases are notorious for giving lenient sentences to rapists.

From Radhika Coomaraswamy & Lisa M. Kois, Violence Against Women, in 1 Women and International Human Rights Law 177, 195-96 (Kelly D. Askin & Dorean M. Koenig eds. 1999).

In addition to these barriers, many countries' legal systems contain a variety of systemic obstacles to prosecuting rape and other forms of sexual assault. Laws may contain unduly narrow definitions of sexual assault or may require a showing of "force" on the part of the perpetrator or "resistance" on the part of the victim. Laws may also impose unreasonable evidentiary burdens on the victim, such as requiring corroboration of her testimony. In many countries, criminal and evidentiary laws allow inquiry into the victim's sexual history, require the victim to prove her chastity before a perpetrator may be found guilty of sexual assault, or allow a perpetrator to prove that the victim "consented" by showing that she did not physically resist the assault.

These and other laws prevent perpetrators of sexual assault from being held accountable and, even when prosecution is possible, turn a trial into an inquiry into the victim's behavior instead of the perpetrator's guilt. Even if a assailant is found guilty, he may be punished less severely than are perpetrators of other kinds of assault. Similarly, perpetrators of acquaintance or marital rape are often punished less severely than are perpetrators of stranger rape.

Efforts to reform laws that prevent effective prosecution of sexual assault have been initiated in many jurisdictions. These reform efforts include redefinition of the crime of sexual assault, the passage of new laws criminalizing marital rape, increasing the penalties for sexual assault, and the elimination of statutes of limitations that restrict prosecution after a period of time has elapsed. Other reforms efforts focus on protecting the victim during the legal process by, for example, restricting the ability of the perpetrator to inquire into the victim's past sexual history.  See, for example, the United Nations expert group report entitled "Good practices in legislation on violence against women" from May 2008.  For the Russian version of the report recommendations, click here.

Adapted from 1997 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Alternative Approaches and Ways and Means Within the United Nations System for Improving the Effective Enjoyment of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (E/CN.4/1997/47) (12 February 1997); Neal Miller, Review of State Sexual Assault Laws: 1997 (7 October 1997).

For a collection of research and reports on criminal laws relating to sexual assault, click here.