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Peru law lets rapists marry, avoid charge

Congresswoman Beatriz Merino remembers the day she first introduced a bill to do away with an old law that is horrifying to many modern-day Peruvians _ the statute permitting a rapist to avoid charges by marrying his victim.

"The congressmen all laughed," she said of her attempts to modify the legislation, which reflects criminal codes left over from Spanish colonial times when a family's honor counted more than a woman's feelings.

About the act of rape, "they joked among themselves," Merino said. "They said, "I'd have tried it myself if I'd known it was so easy to get out of trouble.' "

Merino, the head of Peru's new congressional women's committee, recalled that she angrily slammed her fist on the table, prompting the congressmen to make apologies.

But the jokes, she says, are evidence of why her effort to do away with a law still common across Latin America may not succeed, despite vocal public support.

"It's quite obvious to me this law is an abomination," she said. "But not everybody thinks so."

Her bill modifying the current rape legislation has been scheduled for a full congressional vote.

Under the old reasoning, a woman raped was a woman tarnished. Marrying the attacker, families felt, was the only way to remove the stain on the woman and her family, especially given that her odds of marrying afterward were small.

"It's all about cultural values, and a woman feeling a husband is the most important thing to have in life, economically as well as socially," said Gina Yanez, a lawyer with Manuela Ramos, Lima's leading women's organization.

Under the law, a victim is not required to accept a rapist's proposal. In most cases, however, even today, "there's a lot of pressure on the girls to marry," particularly if they find they are pregnant as a result of the rape, Yanez said. Abortion is illegal.

"When a young girl is raped, the family wants to cleanse her, and the way to do that is to push her into marriage," said Jorge Avendano, a member of Peru's congressional justice committee. "It isn't really her free choice. She does it because she knows it will make everyone happy."

In one recent case in Lima, a 14-year-old girl became pregnant after repeated rapes by her mother's boyfriend. When the pregnancy became obvious, the girl's mother, also pregnant, helped her press charges, and the stepfather went to prison.

Soon, however, the family found itself having a hard time earning enough money to survive. The victim worried that her child, her mother's child and her own two younger brothers might not have enough money to eat, much less study.

So when the rapist began writing letters to his victim from prison, begging her to marry him _ he had never formally married her mother _ the girl listened.

"He says he loves her, that he'll build her a little house and they'll be happy for life," said Yanez.

"She doesn't love him. She's afraid of him," the lawyer said. But the girl will probably accept his proposal, even though the odds are high "he'll marry her and then leave."

Virgilio Landazuri, a retired president of Lima's superior court and a supporter of the rape law, said the little-known measure is rarely used. In his 11 years on the bench, he said, he saw only a handful of cases, most involving young men convicted of statutory rape for impregnating girls under 14.

"I've never in my whole career seen an adult woman that was violently raped marry her attacker," he said, and argues strongly for keeping what he calls a "good and wise law."

Because of the Andean rural tradition of servinacuy, in which very young highland Indians form temporary tryout marriages, thousands of children are born each year from what are technically statutory rapes, he said.

"If you change the law, half of Peru is going to jail," he argued. "I'm upset that congressmen are spending so much time and money trying to change this very insignificant law."

Other supporters of the old law, particularly in Congress, argue that changing the statute would violate a woman's right to marry her attacker.

Merino and others scoff at such arguments. "You'll still be free to get married under the changed law," Avendano said. "The only difference is he'll be in jail."

Those in favor of changing the law point to what they consider even more sinister aspects. Under modifications made in 1921, the law _ nearly identical to similar measures in a dozen other countries including Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela and Nicaragua _ permits all the perpetrators of a gang rape to go free if one of them marries the victim.

The fate of Merino's bill is uncertain. President Alberto Fujimori's congressional majority has expressed doubts.

"Public opinion is very much in favor of the amendment," Avendano said, "but the majority are reluctant."

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