By Emma Batha
LONDON, Jan 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Eastern European and Central Asian countries must overhaul Soviet-era laws on sexual violence that let rapists off the hook and encourage child marriage and bride-kidnapping, legal experts said on Thursday.
Flawed legislation combined with sexist attitudes across the region mean girls and women are often blamed for provoking sexual violence and may be pressured to reconcile with their attackers or even marry them.
"Many of these laws deny justice to survivors of sexual violence rather than bringing their attackers to justice," said Tamar Dekanosidze, a human rights lawyer in Georgia.
"It's important that countries fix these laws and end widespread impunity."
In 10 of the 15 former Soviet Union countries there is no automatic requirement for the authorities to investigate and prosecute sexual violence, according to a study by Equality Now, meaning the burden of pursuing justice lies with the victim.
Police often deter victims from initiating cases, Dekanosidze said. Victims also frequently face pressure from the perpetrator, his family or even their own family to drop claims.
Nine of the countries - Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia - allow reconciliation for sexual violence crimes, according to the study published on Thursday.
In some cases a perpetrator may convince a victim to reconcile by paying her money or promising to marry her to avoid social stigma, said Dekanosidze, the report's co-author.
Equality Now, which will be writing to ministers across the region, also urged countries to amend laws which define rape as sex with violence or the threat of violence.
The report comes a week after Ukraine became the first country in the region to change its law to define rape as sex without consent, following in the footsteps of countries like Sweden and Iceland.
There is no reliable data on the prevalence of sexual violence in the region, but U.N. data suggests a third of women worldwide have suffered sexual or physical violence.
The report also said sexual violence usually went unpunished in bride kidnappings and child marriages which still happen in some Eurasian countries.
Child marriages are illegal in all 15 countries, but may be encouraged if a girl is raped to prevent public shame.
Rape is not investigated in such situations, meaning the forced marriage effectively exonerates the rape, the study said.
Dekanosidze cited the case of a 15-year-old girl in Georgia who was raped by two men. When the teenager reported the attacks her family forced her to marry one of her rapists.
In bride kidnappings, rape is often used as a tool to force the girl into marriage.
Dekanosidze said legal changes were a vital part of wider measures needed to tackle sexual violence.
"Laws can change public attitudes," she said. "Amending these laws would send a strong message that sexual violence won't be tolerated."
(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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