Strict rape laws could make a country less likely to descend into civil war

Stricter rape laws reduce a country's chances of descending into civil warKU News Service

Moving away from archaic laws on rape towards a more egalitarian legal system makes societies more stable and less prone to civil conflict, a study has found.

The study compared rape laws in 194 nations from 1965 to 2005. These were contrasted with the numbers of civil wars or internal conflicts in those countries throughout the period.

A total of 13 states had conflicts in those 40 years. Their laws on rape were lax compared with the global average. However, many of those countries introduced reforms to rape laws during the period, moving towards more a stringent and egalitarian attitude to rape.

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"Our paper finds unambiguous support for our hypothesis that countries that impose longer sentences against rape experience domestic conflict at significantly lower rates," the authors, led by Nazli Avdan of the University of Kansas, wrote in the study.

Another finding was that countries where punitive sentences for rape were equal for male and female perpetrators were also less prone to civil war.

Having a society where women's rights to bodily integrity are respected contributes to a more "humanistic and peaceful" society, the authors argue. Such societies in turn become less prone to civil conflict because of this transition.

"Rape legislation hones in on broader norms and principles about protection of the vulnerable," the authors write. "Progressive and egalitarian rape laws transmit broader societal attitudes that cohere with peaceful resolution of disputes."

The study builds on a body of research tracing the connections between gender equality and likelihood of conflict. Julia Welland, assistant professor of war studies at the University of Warwick, who was not involved in the research, welcomed the study.

"Legal protection of women is often indicative of a more equal and egalitarian society," Welland told IBTimes UK. "Societies that experience fewer structural inequalities are more peaceful because the inequalities that can contribute, exacerbate or even initiate potential conflict are absent or ameliorated."

However, Janine Natalya Clark, reader in gender, international criminal law and transitional justice at Birmingham Law School, who was also not involved in the study, cautioned that the study did not focus on the enforcement of rape laws.

"This attaches too much importance to the laws on rape," Clark said. "The idea that you have a law on sexual violence and it has this positive effect on peace and how people conduct themselves doesn't necessarily follow.

"One of the issues is that the reasons why civil wars happen are so complex. It varies from society to society. Although the paper was well argued, I think it's really problematic to say that in these countries that haven't had recent civil wars, it was partly because they had laws on rape."

Welland agreed that the problem of enforcement of rape laws was a complicating factor, as well as broader political and cultural contexts.

"The individual circumstances of women themselves will be crucial here. For example, it is likely that the ability to report will be shaped by a woman's own socioeconomic position in society. This is something that more in-depth qualitative data may be able to draw out."

A woman attends mass in 2003 in Cazombo, Angola, returning to the country after its brutal 27-year civil war.Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Getty Images

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