Sexual Assault Laws in the CEE/FSU Region

last updated 31 August 2006  


Several similarities and differences with regard to sexual assault legislation exist among the countries in the CEE/FSU region.  Like other countries around the world, rape prevention in this region suffers from underreporting. Rapes are underreported for similar reasons as the rest of the world:  self-blame, fear of being disbelieved, fear of facing the perpetrator, etc.  However, if charges are actually pressed against the accused, several countries in the area have high conviction rates; this is unlike many developed nations, which have low conviction rates as well.  In general, the laws in the CEE/FSU region do not adequately address force and consent concerns.  Most definitions of rape incorporate either a showing of force evidenced by the victim’s resistance or a showing of the perpetrator taking advantage of the victim’s helplessness. Thus, the laws allow a perpetrator to avoid conviction for a non-consensual sexual encounter if the victim does not make her non-consent known or resist.  To remedy this concern, laws should be drafted so as to require the man obtain the woman’s explicit consent before a sexual encounter.  Many states in the region allow the rapist to escape criminal liability if he marries the victim, which the victim’s family may support because of the shame associated with rape.   Most national legislation and enforcement techniques in this region reflect the patriarchal attitude of the culture and the propensity to blame the victim.  On the other hand, some states in the region allow for criminal responsibility for the victim’s suicide that results from the sexual assault.


In Tajikistan, rape is underreported but has high conviction rates.  Shame, fear of perpetrators, fear of disclosure, and family pressure contribute to lack of reporting.  Further, the victim is warned of criminal liability for false accusations when she is reported, which may frighten some legitimate accusations from being reported for fear of being disbelieved.  Further, some situations in which there is speculation as to whether the victim invited the sexual encounter, encourage the perpetrator to marry the victim, who is then relieved of criminal liability.  This practice also discourages women from reporting rapes.  The decision to prosecute is left to the prosecutor’s office.  The prosecutor takes into account the limited definition of rape as well as other factors, including evidentiary difficulties and credibility of the victim before determining to prosecute.  However, once the decision to prosecute is made, most rape cases end in conviction.  The crime of rape is defined as, “Sexual intercourse using violence or threats of violence against the victim or her close relatives while taking advantage of the victim’s helplessness.”  Conviction requires evidence of violence or threat of violence, which can discourage prosecution.  Also, evidence of the victim’s helplessness is required.  This definition of rape focuses on forcible rape and requires the victim’s resistance or inability to resist as part of the act of rape, which will eliminate many cases that should be considered rape.  Laws on rape by organized groups provide for more serious prison terms.  No training courses on rape investigation are offered in police and prosecutor’s offices.  Though marital rape is a crime under the law, there have been no complaints of this offence.


In Azerbaijan, information on rape is limited.  Again, underreporting is a significant issue.  There is no specialized office for dealing with rape investigations, but NGOs in the region have developed some training programs to offer officials.  Again, the grading system used for sexual assault provides more stringent punishment for forcible rape.  No criminal provisions exist governing marital rape, but NGOs are working to raise awareness regarding the issue.


In Bulgaria, the definition of rape allows for rape if the sexual intercourse occurred without the victim’s consent; however, there is little information on how consent is interpreted in this context.  The definition also states that rape occurs if the victim is deprived of the possibility of self-defense or helpless.  The criminal code also contains a provision that states rape occurs if someone takes advantage of a woman’s dependence on him to elicit sexual intercourse.  Like in Tajikistan, rape is highly underreported, but those that are prosecuted often end in conviction.  There is no separate provision governing marital rape, nor may the perpetrator avoid legal responsibility by marrying the victim.  Interestingly, punishment for rape that results in the suicide of the victim calls for more serious punishment.


Similar to Tajikistan, Latvia defines rape as, “An act of sexual intercourse by means of violence, threats or taking advantage of helplessness of the female victim.”  Again, rape is underreported.  No specialized departments or training programs exist for rape investigation.  Like in Bulgaria, there are no special provisions for avoiding legal responsibility by marrying the victim or for marital rape.  In Latvia, like other countries in the region, victim-blaming is a serious cultural concern.


In Romania, the definition of rape seems to require the manifestation of the victim’s non-consent, rather than an affirmative giving of consent.  Because of this, the victim’s allegation must be corroborated by the existence of coercion of some kind.  Further, the victim’s credibility is a significant consideration in rape cases.  The laws as well as the information available regarding the prosecution of rape cases in Romania indicates a culture that engages in victim-blaming.  Like Tajikistan, the law provides for an exemption from liability if the victim marries the perpetrator.  Also, there is no specific provision regarding marital rape, but the general provision from rape does not preclude prosecution within a marriage.  However, the jurisprudence seems particularly opposed to accepting marital rape.  


In Albania, rape is defined as non-consensual sexual intercourse.  A special department within police stations and training course have been created for officials investigating rape cases.  Though the law doesn’t relive the perpetrator of liability for marrying the victim, the victim may withdraw her complaint according to such an arrangement.  Though, Albania is a patriarchal society, women are beginning to understand and speak out about their human rights.   


Compared to the rest of the CEE/FSU region, Belarus finds itself slightly behind as the concept of women’s rights is only just beginning to develop.  Media coverage of sexual assault is “trivialized and oversimplified” (IHR Report, Belarus).  Rape is significantly underreported.  No special departments or training programs exist.  A victim’s testimony must be corroborated for conviction.  As in Albania, though marriage does not preclude the perpetrator from liability, the woman may withdraw her complaint.  Women in Belarus are particularly inclined to blame themselves for the rape and thus fail to report. 


Poland’s sexual assault laws on rape focus on the use of force.  In 1998, the laws changed the grading of rape from a felony to a misdemeanor, so punishments for rape decreased.  Though some programs exist to train prosecutors and police, they are not sufficient.  Women are often mistreated by both groups, as well as blamed for the sexual assault.  Women are generally treated with skepticism in both the investigative and prosecutorial stages.  Poland’s criminal code contains an interesting “no return” provision, which means that once the motion is filed, the victim cannot withdraw the complaint.  On its face this prevents perpetrators from intimidating the victim into withdrawing the complaint; however, this sometimes discourages victims from reporting the crime for fear of its permanency.  Despite concerns about re-victimizing the woman through prolonged proceedings, there are no limits on the number of motions that may be filed or the amount of times the victim can be questioned by police.  Officials often tend to differentiate forcible rape from acquaintance rape, even though no legislative difference exists.  Perpetrators convicted of rape often receive light sentences.  Passivity on the part of the victim is often interpreted as consent.  Even though marital rape is a crime, few cases are investigated.  On the other hand, some areas have begun to implement new procedures for sexual assault cases.  Some police stations post women’s rights and explain them to the victim.  Prosecutors serve as an advisee to the victim and inform her of her rights.  In addition, some local legislation has required police supervision over a perpetrator, thus limiting the perpetrator’s access to the victim.


The International Helsinki Federation has also reported on sexual assault laws in Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia,  Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. 



Compiled 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).