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A Jordanian police officer stands guard in front of the parliament in Amman, Jordan May 29, 2016.  © 2016 Reuters

UPDATE: On August 1, 2017, Jordan’s lower house of parliament voted to repeal penal code article 308 entirely.

(Amman) – Jordanian lawmakers will decide on August 1, 2017 whether to remove or amend an infamous provision in the country’s 1960 penal code that allows people who commit sexual assault to avoid punishment if they marry their victims, Human Rights Watch said today. Removing the article completely would be a positive step to strengthen the rule of law and end impunity for violence against women.

The government’s proposed law, first recommended in February 2017 by a royal committee tasked with reforming Jordan’s justice system, would abolish penal code article 308 entirely. The legal committee of the lower house of parliament, however, has proposed maintaining article 308’s impunity for those responsible for certain sexual offenses, including those who have sex with children between 15 and 17 years old – in practice men who have sex with girls.

“Article 308 has been a blight on Jordan’s human rights record for decades, and lawmakers should cancel it in its entirety,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The mere existence of article 308 puts pressure on women and girls to marry those who assault them, including teenage victims of rape.”

Two Jordanian women’s rights activists told Human Rights Watch that Jordan’s elected lower house of parliament will vote on both proposals on August 1. Whichever proposal is approved, the penal code amendments will go to the appointed upper house for approval and then require the king’s signature to become law.

The lower house legal committee’s recommendation mirrors a 2015 proposal that was never adopted. Instead of repealing article 308 entirely, it would maintain the exemption for those accused of consensual sex with a child between the ages of 15 and 17 who then agree to marry the child.

Exempting adults from prosecution for consensual sex with children ages 15 and over if they marry the child contravenes Jordanian laws that set 18 as the legal minimum age for marriage. It would also expose children, particularly girls, to the risk of substantial pressure to marry, limiting their ability to make a full, free, and informed choice, Human Rights Watch said.

The debate around article 308 is part of a regional move toward canceling provisions that allow impunity for sexual assault. On July 26, Tunisia’s Parliament scrapped a similar provision in its penal code, and in January 2014, Morocco’s parliament removed a clause from article 475 of its penal code that had, in effect, allowed some men to escape prosecution for raping a child if they agreed to marry her. In 1999, Egypt repealed article 291 of its penal code, which had allowed rapists or kidnappers to escape prosecution by marrying their victim.

Lebanon’s Parliament is currently considering repealing a similar provision in its laws. Bahrain’s Parliament had proposed a full repeal, but is now considering amended text from the cabinet that proposed repealing the provision only in cases of gang rape.

Other countries in the region that retain similar provisions include Algeria, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Palestine, and Syria. Globally, several Latin American countries, the Philippines, and Tajikistan are among countries that retain such provisions. 

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