Sexual Assault: General Information

Last updated June 2019

Sexual assault is a violation of women’s human rights that can be perpetuated by state or non-state actors, including acquaintances, dating partners, current or former intimate partners or spouses, or strangers. Regardless of the perpetrators’ identity, victims of sexual assault often face many obstacles in obtaining needed protection and assistance.

Women’s rights may further be infringed upon by laws and policies that are poorly designed to address sexual assault. In the 15-year review of her mandate, the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women acknowledged that:

[D]ominant notions of female sexuality have shaped protectionist approaches in international humanitarian law and domestic penal codes. Rape and sexual assault laws that refer to women’s chastity, closure of rape cases upon marriage with the rapist, non-criminalization of marital rape, adultery laws, and restrictions regarding relationships outside ethnic, religious or class boundaries are ways of policing women’s sexuality.[1]

While recognizing that men are also victims of sexual assault, the focus of this website is violence against women. As a result, the discussion of sexual assault in this website will focus on sexual assault of women and the ways in which sexual violence is deeply connected to historically unequal power relationships between men and women.

[1] Yakin Ertürk, Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, 15 Years of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences 37 (2009).