AWARE urges complete closing of gaps in rape law; urges further reform and public education on consent, repeal of Section 377A

Singapore’s leading gender rights organisation, AWARE in a statement, welcomed the moves in the Criminal Law Reform Bill, introduced in Parliament on Monday, that mostly remove marital immunity for rape, and expand existing rape and sexual assault laws – for the former, including non-consensual penetration to the mouth and the anus, and for the latter, including non-consensual penetration perpetrated by women against men.

“Everyone deserves to be protected by law against sexual violence of any kind, regardless of marital status and gender,” said Corinna Lim, Executive Director of AWARE. “We are glad and relieved to see these lacunae in the law finally be addressed.”

However, the organisation is concerned that the Bill maintains marital immunity for sexual activity with minors over the age of 12 and under the age of 16, who are said to ‘consent’. A man who has sex with a 15-year-old girl would ordinarily be deemed guilty of rape, regardless of her apparent agreement, but the Bill deems such a minor wife capable of ‘consenting’ to sexual activity with her husband.

The Bill further introduces new forms of marital immunity in respect of several sexual offences perpetrated against minors, such as the production and distribution of ‘child abuse material’.

“There is confusion in this law,” said Ms Lim. “Mostly, it rightly stipulates that minors cannot consent to sexual activity with adults; such situations are inherently exploitative and therefore criminal. To say that marriage cancels out this exploitation is deeply regressive – child marriage is itself abusive.”

AWARE also expressed disappointment that the Bill declined to codify the definition of ‘consent’ as it recommended in its submission to the Ministry in September 2018.

“This is a valuable opportunity to codify the strong case law that the courts have produced over the years, clarifying various aspects of consent,” said Ms. Lim. “We hope that the Ministry will reconsider this. We have observed that current poor understanding of consent sometimes prevents survivors from reporting abuse. A positive statutory definition would replace the myths and prejudices that often influence these decisions.”

Nevertheless, Ms. Lim said, “Most of the proposed changes are welcome. It will be important, after the Bill is passed, for the government to launch a public campaign to educate on consent, sexual assault and the new offences that have been introduced.”

Finally, Ms. Lim added, “As we move towards more humane and inclusive laws, centred on protection from violence and respect for bodily autonomy rather than gendered concepts of sexual purity, the prejudices expressed in Section 377A become increasingly anomalous. It is time to repeal it.”

For the full list of AWARE’s September 2018 recommendations view “Proposed Amendments to the Penal Code: AWARE’s submissions to the Government consultation”.