Central Asia’s sexual violence laws are at odds with international norms, which are rooted in the recognition of consent as a central element of sexual relations, argues a new report by Equality Now. Equality Now is a non-governmental organization dedicated to protecting and promoting the human rights of women and girls.
The recently released report reviews sexual violence laws in five Eurasian countries – Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Given our focus here at Crossroads Asia, I will highlight the results related to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, but you can access the full report here.
The criminal codes of the three Central Asian countries deal with three main types of sexual violence: rape, assault of a sexual nature and coercion or coercion to act of a sexual nature. However, by dividing up these crimes, governments minimize some types of sexual assault, and none of the three countries include the concept of consent in their legal frameworks.
As the Equality Now report states: “The crime of rape in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan involves only vaginal penetration and not other orifices of another person’s body with body parts or objects to which that person has not consented. All three penal codes also largely revolved around violence, the threat of violence, or abuse of the victim’s helplessness.
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The Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek penal codes also refer to “abuses of a sexual nature,” which rely on the same framework of violence but frame such assaults with derogatory terminology – for example, Kyrgyz and Kazakh laws refer to “sodomy, lesbianism, or other acts of a sexual nature.” Nature in a perverse form” and the Uzbek Penal Code refers to “satisfaction of sexual needs in an unnatural form”. In general, these crimes carry the same penalties as those qualifying as “rape,” but are separated.
Finally, ‘coercion’ is covered by additional articles in the three countries. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, rape or assault of a sexual nature, as defined elsewhere, committed through extortion, “or the exploitation of material or other dependency of the victim” falls into this category. The Uzbek penal code refers to “where the victim was dependent on the perpetrator for official, material or other reasons”.
“This offense,” writes Equality Now, “is classified as a ‘less serious crime’ and carries lower penalties, although it is classified as rape by local and international standards.”
“The problematic assumption behind these definitions is that an act that does not involve the use of physical force or serious threat to life or health cannot constitute rape and can only be criminalized as a minor crime,” the report continues.
The differences are stark. In the Uzbek Penal Code, for example, the crime of rape — the definition of which is given as “intercourse using force, threats, or taking advantage of the victim’s helplessness” — is caught by Article 118 and carries penalties of seven to 10 years, with compounded ones Forms affecting victims under the age of 18, “close relatives” (although not usually interpreted as spouses) and “with serious consequences”, which carry prison sentences of 10 to 15 years. Similarly, Article 119 – “Satisfaction of sexual needs in an unnatural form through the use of force”.
But when it comes to “forcing a woman to have sexual intercourse,” Article 121 states: “Forcing a woman to have sexual intercourse or the satisfaction of a sexual need in an unnatural form by a person for whom the woman was official, material or other dependency … will be punished with community service of up to 300 hours or correctional work of up to two years.”
This difference is generally reflected in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (although there are some differences in penalties), but again, violence – in the physical sense of the word – is the key difference between rape and “forcing a woman to have sexual intercourse”. This focus on physical violence, writes Equality Now, “leaves a large number of acts of sexual violence unpunished.”
This narrow understanding of violence is one that places the burden on the victim to fight back and renders judgment on the victim’s actions (or lack thereof) rather than those of the perpetrator. For example, imagine a scenario where a woman would not fight to resist rape because she believes it could result in her death.
Equality Now’s recommendations to the governments of Eurasia to bring their laws against sexual violence in line with modern international norms focus on incorporating consent into their legal frameworks. In existing laws, “lack of victim consent is not considered a constituent part of crime, although regional and international standards expressly require it.” In addition, existing laws do not cover all circumstances “that could prevent a victim from expressing consent, such as abuse of trust and authority and dependency situations”.
Until the region’s laws are updated, existing regulations can be interpreted more actively to provide victims with justice more in line with international standards. For example, Equality Now writes that women who are also victims of domestic violence “might be considered ‘helpless’ for the purposes of these provisions as a victim in such a coercive environment is unable to genuinely give consent.” .
However, this requires those responsible for administering justice – particularly the police and the courts – to think more broadly and compassionately about victims of sexual violence.