Portugal finally expands the legal definition of rape

[AMICUS CURIAE] According to a research by Amnesty International, 1 in 10 women in the European Union is victim of some sort of sexual violence from the age of 15. Particularly, in Portugal, according to the latest Annual Internal Security Report (RASI), cases of rape are, unfortunately, on the rise. What is more, in 2016, only 37% of those convicted for committing sexual crimes were sentenced to prison. The numbers reveal the impunity for committing sex crimes.

As a matter of fact, a case in which two men that had sex with a woman while she was unconscious, was judged by Portuguese courts as not constituting rape, since there was no violence. Instead, it was regarded, as a mere episode in an ambiance of ‘mutual seduction’. Consequently, activists were demanding that Portuguese laws should define rape in a clear manner to focus on the lack of consent to determine if the case constitutes or not the crime of rape.

In this context, on January 11th, Portugal approved a new law that expanded the legal definition of rape. Finally, the new law properly complies with the Istanbul Convention, which is an international treaty that aims to prevent and combat violence against women. It is a Council of Europe Convention from 2011 that recognizes violence against women as a violation of human rights. Thus, its purposes are to prevent the violence, to protect the victims and to properly prosecute the perpetrators.

Under the previous Portuguese legislation, activists argued that the outdated law could not properly protect victims of rape. The new legal definition of rape will now focus only on the lack of consent and no longer requires violence to define it as a rape. This change enabled the judiciary to consider any sex without consent as rape, which includes situations when the victim is unconscious or when the victim is coerced to have sex against her or his will.

Even though laws alone are not capable of preventing this horrible crime from happening, they are an important first step to change the current impunity scenario. That said, there are still many obstacles that prevent victims from even reporting crimes of rape, which include fear, shame, prejudice and even victim blaming. Hence, more than simply changing laws, a drastic change of cultural and social patterns is also urgent to reduce sexual crimes and impunity.

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