AWARE welcomes proposal to repeal marital immunity for rape, recommends ‘clear definition’ of consent

AWARE welcomes proposal to repeal marital immunity for rape, recommends ‘clear definition’ of consent

SINGAPORE: The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) said on Tuesday (Oct 2) it expressed support for the proposals to repeal marital immunity for rape, as well as to decriminalise suicide, in its submission to the public consultation on the Penal Code review. 

The proposals by the Penal Code Review Committee were among 169 recommendations submitted to the Government at the end of August and were open to public feedback. A Penal Code Amendment Bill is targeted to be tabled in Parliament in November.

“After more than a decade of steadfast advocacy for the full, unqualified repeal of marital immunity for rape, AWARE is delighted to finally welcome this monumental change.

“This sends a powerful signal that our government does not condone violence against women under any circumstances, including in marriage,” said AWARE executive director Corinna Lim. 

READ: Commentary – What took us so long to move against marital immunity for rape? 

AWARE, however, said a repeal on its own will not be enough to dismantle the barriers that prevent women from reporting sexual assault.

“It is crucial that we also see state-led, widespread public education on consent and gender roles, especially in pre-marriage workshops, in order to chip away at the harmful gendered expectations around spousal sexual relations,” Ms Lim added. 

In its press release, AWARE said that despite the steps taken to address gaps in the law pertaining to offences against vulnerable persons, it is concerned about the “general over-reliance on harsh penalties such as more caning and longer sentences to deter crime”.

Said Ms Anisha Joseph, head of Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC) at AWARE: “Eight in 10 survivors of sexual violence that we see at SACC know or are close to their perpetrators. 

“Most times, the prospect of harsher punishment against their abusers can heighten their fears of destroying the perpetrator’s life and also of retaliation, hence deterring survivors from reporting.”

AWARE has recommended that to increase reporting of sexual offences, the Government should work with partners to roll out an “effective and comprehensive communications and education programme”. 

It also proposed that relevant ministries conduct “trauma-informed gender sensitisation training” for professionals on the ground who come across survivors of marital rape and other forms of sexual violence in their work, including doctors, police officers and social workers. 

“Some clients we see received discouraging and victim-blaming comments from professionals when they disclosed their experience of sexual violence,” said Ms Joseph. 

“For example, survivors of marital rape have, upon reporting their assault, been told that sex is simply expected in a marriage. Or there is an unreasonable level of suspicion that they are vindictive wives falsely accusing their husbands. 

“We need to dispel the prevailing myth that marriage grants automatic access to a spouse’s body,” Ms Joseph added. 

“CLEAR” DEFINITION OF CONSENT

AWARE made several other recommendations through the public consultation, including calling for a “clear, statutory definition of ‘consent'”. 

“The Penal Code defines consent in a convoluted manner, relying on many different sections under the Code. Professionals on the ground like social workers, counsellors and laypersons, including survivors, find it difficult to understand the term,” said Ms Lim.

AWARE said it has “seen cases where investigation bodies and/or the authorities seemed to believe that a survivor who did not use physical force to resist the perpetrator must have consented to sexual assault, even though the Courts have already ruled that physical submission does not in itself amount to consent”.

It recommended that “based on already existing case law and research on how consent is conceptualised in other common law countries”, consent for sexual activity be defined as the “free, informed and voluntary participation of the complainant in the sexual activity in question” and that “lack of resistance and submission to sexual activity, in itself, is not consent as a matter of law.”

AWARE also recommended updating the use “outrage/insult of modesty”.

“‘Modesty’ is an outdated concept and in the sexual context, associated with regressive notions
of women’s chastity and should be done away with,” said Ms. Lim. 

Instead, the group said, “outrage of modesty” should be renamed “sexual assault” to reflect the prevailing understanding of non-consensual sexual conduct as a violation of an individual’s right to control what is done to their body, instead of as an “outrage” of an abstract quality called “modesty”. 

It added that “insult of modesty” should be renamed to “sexual harassment” to supplement the provisions under the Protection from Harassment Act, which does not specifically include an offence of sexual harassment. 

READ: In marital rape, proving lack of consent a “complicated” issue – Lawyers

On the recommendation to decriminalise suicide. AWARE said in a joint submission with Silver Ribbon, that it appreciated the “recognition of the underlying mental distress that causes people to attempt suicide.”

AWARE added that it hopes this “acknowledgment will pave the way for a multi-systems healthcare approach that values mental and physical health equally.”

READ: “Antiquated” law 377A should be repealed, says Tommy Koh

The group also said it “strongly calls” for the repeal of section 377A of the Penal Code so that Singapore can be a “truly inclusive and humane society that values all of its people equally”. 

“Although it is unenforced, 377A is used to embed norms and values that are discriminatory against groups of persons, and we have come across this on a regular basis,” said Ms Lim.

“Many people have reached out to us to seek help on how to deal with discrimination they face at the workplace or schools because of their sexual orientation and gender identity, and there is a general lack of public education on sexuality,” she said. 

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