Amid rising tide of sexual harassment on women in the workplace, gender advocates are still buoyant. Lebanon repealed last month article 528 of its penal code, in place since 1940, that allowed rape offenders avoid jail time by marrying their victims. Lebanon is the latest entrant among two other Arab countries – Tunisia and Jordan – to have struck down “marry the rapist” law from their legal regime that has vestiges in colonial past, “in an attempt to normalize sexual acts by categorizing them within the institution of marriage,” said UNDispatch. Considered a global epidemic, rape is legally permissible in some other states: 10 countries may exempt a perpetrator from punishment upon reaching a ‘settlement’ with the victim and her family, and another 10 countries expressly allow rape of woman or girl by her husband, according international NGO, Equality Now. It is perplexing how Philippines, a Catholic-dominated country and a gender champion in Asia for three years in a row, is able to remain subscribed to a penal law that grants escape route to rape offenders from punishment.
Until 1997, rape was designated as crime against chastity in Philippines since 1935, punishable when a man is “having carnal knowledge of a woman,” according to article 335 of Revised Penal Code. The law would exempt husbands from marital rape, which many feminists consider repulsive to gender equality. While article 335 made no mention of marriage as a defense to extinguish criminal liability, Supreme Court decisions, which form part of the laws of land, have carved a special privilege for male offenders out of the law to insulate them from jail time. In the vintage case of People vs. Jerry C. Velasco, G.R. No L-28081 (1974), the perpetrator, sentenced by trial court to life imprisonment, avoided serving major portion of his jail sentence following his subsequent marriage to victim. More than three decades later, the High Court in People vs. Ronnie de Guzman, G.R. No. 185843 (2010) reiterated its commitment to the sanctity of marriage and value of family cohesion when it released the offender from prison, convicted of two counts of rape, following his marriage to complainant. Other than the publicly accessible Court decision, no data is available to prove whether marriage is for the best interests of rape victims. Some western scholars may find the decisions of Court odd, but for a country colonized by Spain for more than three centuries, letting go of colonial past that measured family honor largely on the moral standing of women, is a lingering concern.
The enactment of Republic Act No. 8353 otherwise known as the Anti-Rape Law in September 1997 was hailed by many as equalizer of gender imbalance. The law introduced novel changes, among others: reclassification of rape as a crime against person, expanded the definition of offender to any person regardless of gender. If rape marital rape was not a crime, this time it is a serious offense which carries a penalty of imprisonment for life. The first marital rape case that reached the Supreme Court came from Cagayan de Oro City. In People vs. Jumawan, G.R. No. 187495 (2014), the Court upheld the conviction of husband for two counts rape and ruled that, “[h]usbands do not have property rights over their wives’ bodies. Sexual intercourse, albeit within the realm of marriage, if not consensual, is rape.” What vexes, though, for many rights advocates about this new law is a portion of article 266-C which states, “subsequent valid marriage between the offended party shall extinguish the criminal action or the penalty imposed…” Since existing jurisprudence has already recognized the so-called marry the rapist arrangement, it is significant to question whether it was necessary for Congress to legislate similar arrangement. The Supreme Court’s propensity to flip-flop on contentious issues may have prompted Congress to assert its political power to establish permanency in the observance of criminal laws.
For all its noble purpose, article 266-C is unlikely the antidote of alarming rape cases in the country, at the present rate a woman or child is raped every 53 minutes, according to Center for Women’s Resources as reported by Philippine Star. On the contrary, the law encourages impunity with badges of government authority. Some practicing lawyers in the provinces, particularly in Mindanao, know well that most rape victims who come from underserved communities accept marriage proposal from perpetrators out of economic necessity and stability of community. Confronted with the unwelcome environment of legal system as well as socio-economic pressure, rape victims cannot be blamed for signing marriage contract with their predators. While it is true that institutional and policy reforms are appropriate strategies to reducing gender gaps, the same must be complemented with equally aggressive approach to changing traditional values and outmoded beliefs that impede the advancement of genuine gender equality. This is pervasive in most Muslim majority countries where women continue to struggle for recognition of their basic rights.
Steeped in Islamic tradition, it was not easy for the three Arab countries to delete the “marry the rapist law” from their statute books. At the early stage of campaign, proponents had to endure fierce resistance not only from political leaders but also from the powerful conservative religious clerics. As reported, ongoing initiatives are taking place across the globe particularly in Muslim majority countries to completely remove the “marry the rapist law.” This is a positive sign, but not enough. Sometimes recourse to parliament is not always easy; some gatekeepers are looking for every opportunity to block any measure that challenges patriarchal culture. Take the case of Malaysia. A parliament member and former sharia judge made headlines when he said, “Perhaps through marriage they can lead a healthier, better life. And the person who was raped does not necessarily have a bleak future. She will have a husband, at least, and this could serve as a remedy to growing social problems,” It is deplorable that some political leaders are not receptive to change and cannot distinguish what is fundamental from ordinary rights. Any law that allows male offenders to avoid jail term by marrying the victim is an affront to fundamental rights of women. If misogynists consider men as superior being, “macho” is often the reference, why do they embrace “marry the rapist law”? It is time to amend Philippines’ article 266-C of Anti-Rape Law, and give justice to Mao Zedong’ “women hold up half the sky.”