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AWARE welcomes repeal of marital rape and suicide decriminalisation, recommends clear definition of consent and comprehensive public education

Gender equality group AWARE released a statement recently applauding the repeal of marital immunity for rape and the decriminalisation of suicide in its submission to the public consultation on the Penal Code review. To increase reporting of sexual crimes, the group recommended comprehensive education for the public, professionals and all officials in the criminal justice system, and a clear definition of consent in the Penal Code.

“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 Corinna Lim, Executive Director of AWARE.

“But 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.”

AWARE’s recommendations on Section 309 on the decriminalisation of suicide are made together with Silver Ribbon in a joint submission to the public consultation

Despite the steps taken to address gaps in the law that pertain to offences against vulnerable persons, AWARE also stated their concern about the general over-reliance on harsh penalties such as more caning and longer sentences to deter crime.

Said 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.”

Instead, AWARE recommends that the Government work closely with partners to roll out an effective and comprehensive communications and education programme as part of the changes to the Penal Code to increase reporting of sexual offences.

AWARE also recommends 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 social workers, doctors and police officers.

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

Other major recommendations from the group include criminalising voyeurism and non-consensual distribution of intimate images, updating and amending the language of “outrage/insult of modesty”, and of course the repeal of Section 377A. They also recommend that a clearer statutory definition of ‘consent’ be outline. “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.