Beirut - In what could prove a victory for women's rights activists in Lebanon, a parliamentary committee recently recommended striking down a law that allows rapists' sentences to be commuted if they marry their victim.
Although it is difficult to say how many women have been affected by the law, it is most likely to occur in situations where the victim knows her rapist - such as a cousin or neighbour - and the tight-knit community heaps pressure on her to accept the offer of marriage, said Roula Masri, a senior programme manager with the local gender-rights NGO, ABAAD.
"There's the psychological trauma," Masri told Al Jazeera. "Victims usually have to undergo therapy. They may feel that sex is disgusting … Usually, the victims, the girls, are obliged [to marry their rapist] by family members. They would blame you, and they would push the marriage forward, to save the family's honour."
Men convicted of rape in Lebanon can face up to five years in jail. The proposed changes to the law would also increase the maximum sentence to seven years, and classify rape as a crime against women.
"[Currently], the law does not think or indicate that the rapist is a criminal," Masri said, noting that in addition to the psychological trauma, violent rape can harm women's sexual and reproductive health in the long term.
Last month, Lebanon's parliamentary committee for administration and justice announced a recommendation to repeal Article 522 of the country's penal code, which allows for suspending the conviction of someone who has raped, kidnapped or committed statutory rape, if he marries the victim.
The recommendation must now go through parliament, a process that could still take months.
Members of the parliamentary committee did not respond to Al Jazeera's requests for comment on the matter.
Four women each week report being the victims of sexual violence in Lebanon, Masri said, citing police figures - but many rapes go unreported for various reasons, including a lack of faith in the justice system.
It's a very patriarchal notion that you're protecting her by allowing her to marry him … It encourages a rapist to rape, and he will know that she will not report it due to the stigma, or you can marry her.
This is a problem throughout the region, said Rothna Begum, a women's rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. The shame and stigma surrounding rape victims discourage women and girls from reporting, and gives rapists a sense of impunity.
"Girls or women who have been raped, especially if she's a virgin, are then considered unmarriageable. So, lawmakers tend to feel that providing her the opportunity to marry her rapist is helping to protect her," Begum told Al Jazeera. "It's a very patriarchal notion that you're protecting her by allowing her to marry him … It encourages a rapist to rape, and he will know that she will not report it due to the stigma, or you can marry her. It's a great way to force your victim to marry you."
Describing the rape-marriage exemption law as a "relic" of the past, Begum noted that while supporters of such laws may indeed believe they are protecting women and girls, "in fact, they do the opposite".
While modernising the legal system is a good step, she added, an overhaul of sexual education across the Middle East is also urgently needed.
"This all comes down to sexual autonomy for women and girls," Begum said. "When we talk about stigma, we're talking about the shaming of women and girls, conditioning their behaviour so they don't end up choosing who they go out with, or whether they can have sex."
Other laws in the region, including legislation in Lebanon that criminalises adultery, should also be repealed, Begum said, noting that such laws disproportionately affect women and girls, as the cases often only come to light when they become visibly pregnant.
Still, for Naziha Baassiri, a 31-year-old fashion student in Beirut, the proposed repeal "won't change anything on the ground."
"Of course, it's a good thing to get rid of these archaic laws, but really it's not about that," she told Al Jazeera. "It's about if you get raped - will you step forward? And if you do, how will the people dealing with you treat you? Because they are usually all men."
Training of police is vital, as women and girls have no faith that their reports will be taken seriously or that justice will be served, she added.
"Women also shame other women; they are not supportive. All these values are entrenched in society and family … This goes way beyond someone signing off on a societal law," Baassiri said.
Substantive change on such issues "will take a lot of time, maybe a generation," Begum acknowledged. "But it has to start now."
For ABAAD, which campaigned fiercely for the rape-marriage exemption law to be repealed, the work continues.
Masri is keen now to tackle abortion, which is criminalised in Lebanon, and marital rape, which is not. Both are defined by personal status religious courts, and not by the judiciary, and will need to be dealt with "sensitively", Masri said.
"We need to see the next steps," she said, "which can see direct gains for women, and not just a black hole."
Source: Al Jazeera