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“Adultery should not be criminal offence at all,” says UN expert group on women’s human rights

GENEVA (18 October 2012) – The United Nations Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice urged Governments to repeal laws which criminalize adultery and give rise to punishments ranging from the imposition of fines to flogging and death by stoning, or hanging.

“Adultery must not be classified as a criminal offence at all,” stressed independent expert Kamala Chandrakirana, who currently heads the UN expert body charged with identifying ways to eliminate laws that discriminate against women or are discriminatory to them in terms of implementation or impact, and helping States to ensure greater empowerment for women in all fields.

In a statement* made public at the end of the Group’s fifth session in Geneva, the experts recognized that in accordance with some traditions, customs and different legal systems, adultery may constitute a civil offence with legal consequences in divorce cases, in respect of the custody of children or the denial of alimony, amongst others.

“However, it should not be a criminal offence and must not be punishable by fine, imprisonment, flogging, or death by stoning or hanging,” Ms. Chandrakirana said, noting that in many countries, adultery continues to be a crime punishable with severe penalties. “Provisions in penal codes often do not treat women and men equally and establish harsher sanctions for women, and in some countries, rules of evidence value women’s testimony as half that of a man’s.”

The group of experts warned that maintaining adultery as a criminal offence -even when it applies to both women and men - means in practice that women mainly will continue to face extreme vulnerabilities, and violation of their human rights to dignity, privacy and equality, given continuing discrimination and inequalities faced by women.

“The criminalization of sexual relations between consenting adults is a violation of their right to privacy and infringement of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as established almost two decades ago by international human rights jurisprudence,” Ms. Chandrakirana said. “States parties to the Covenant are obliged to ensure that domestic norms take account of developments in international law.”

In their statement, the experts noted that some States have remedied this violation of women’s rights, recalling a 1996 decision of the Guatemalan Constitutional Court which struck down the Penal Code’s punishment of marital infidelity or adultery on the basis both of the Constitution’s equality guarantees and human rights treaties including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Similarly, in 2007, the Ugandan Constitutional Court overturned the adultery law that penalized women for adultery while leaving their male partners unpunished.

“We urge all Governments which retain criminalization of adultery and allow the imposition of fines, imprisonment, flogging, death by stoning or hanging for convictions of adultery, to repeal any such provisions and to ensure that all accused enjoy their rights to a fair trial,” Ms. Chandrakirana underscored.

The Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice was established by the Human Rights Council in 2010 to identify ways to eliminate existing discrimination in law and practice, and helping States to ensure greater empowerment and autonomy for women in all fields. The Group is currently composed of four independent human rights experts: Kamala Chandrakirana, Chair-Rapporteur (Indonesia); Emna Aouij (Tunisia); Frances Raday (Israel/United Kingdom) and Eleonora Zielinska (Poland). They are independent from any government or organization, and serve in their individual capacities.

(*) Read the full statement: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=12672&LangID=E

Learn more about the mandate and activities of the Working Group, log on: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Women/WGWomen/Pages/WGWomenIndex.aspx

Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/ccpr.htm

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against women: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/CEDAW/Pages/CEDAWIndex.aspx

For inquiries and media requests, please contact: Nathalie Stadelmann (+41 917 9104 / nstadelmann@ohchr.org) or write to wgdiscriminationwomen@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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