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Study: more stringent rape laws reduce chances a country will face civil war

Students march against gender violence in North Darfur. A new study has found a link between stronger sentences for rape and decreased civil war and strife. (Photo by Albert González Farran, UNAMID)

ALBANY, N.Y. (September 18, 2017) – Countries that have longer punitive sentences for rape crimes are re associated with a significantly lower probability of intrastate conflict, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Kansas and the University at Albany.

The results show that gender neutrality of law, where the penal code establishes similar sentences for female and male offenders alike, also significantly decreases the likelihood of civil war.

The study was conducted by Nazli Avdan, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Kansas and Victor Asal, chair of public administration and professor of political science at UAlbany’s Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy.

Avdan and Asal paired a statistical analysis of data on rape legislation for 194 states across the world from 1965 to 2005 with the number of intrastate conflicts (or civil wars) during that time frame. Avdan said their study proposes the legal system and the penal code, especially punishment for rape, are the missing links between social norms and an intrastate conflict.

Published online first recently in the journal Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict, the study addresses an expanding body of research that argues that gender inequality heightens the probability of intrastate conflict by creating a structure of violence.

The researchers found that countries that did little to punish perpetrators of rape likely include exemptions for the crime of rape if the perpetrator and victim are married, or possibly they treat genders differently under the law. In other cases, some states’ penal systems exonerate the attacker if he agrees to marry the rape victim. “Basically we found that countries that do not take rape seriously are more likely to experience civil wars while those that impose serious punishments are less likely to suffer such civil wars,” Asal explained.

"A so-called marriage loophole is a situation with a perpetrator is married to a victim would exonerate the assailant," Avdan said in an interview for the University of Kansas. "That is at its core a misogynistic policy. Countries with these policies - for example, Middle Eastern countries like Jordan and Lebanon but also other countries such as the Philippines -- have received condemnation for not reforming these laws."

The researchers argue that nations that have laws that are gender neutral in how they protect citizens, especially in granting equal protection and rights to women, the more likely the state's society will embody liberal and progressive norms.

"These norms cohere with ideas about peaceful conflict resolution," Avdan said. "These ideas in turn mitigate civil conflict."

Through their analysis, the authors identified 13 states that experienced civil conflict or were prone to conflict, including: Angola, Georgia, Guinea, Haiti, India, Iraq, Liberia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Of those nations, most have worked to reform rape laws toward stringency and gender neutrality. The researchers also found that as these countries worked to establish similar sentences for female and male offenders alike they significantly decreased chances of an internal conflict.

Three states that did not seek to improve rape laws during 40-year time period: Liberia, Myanmar and Senegal.

“There is a huge area for future research that needs to be explored here after new data that is collected related to the actual application of these laws not only using such data to explain civil conflict but also using such data to see why some countries have much higher levels of sexual assault than others ,” Asal said.

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