A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Clinton on Global Domestic Violence Laws


Hillary Clinton repeatedly has said “more than half the nations in the world” have no laws on domestic violence. That’s wrong. The United Nations reports that 125 countries — two-thirds of all nations — had such laws on the books as of April 2011.

Clinton, who has made women’s rights a central theme of her nascent presidential campaign, gave her first speech as a presidential candidate at the Women in the World Summit on April 23.

She talked about the progress women have made in recent decades, citing improvements in Tanzania, Nepal and Rwanda. “There has never been a better time in history to be born female,” she said.

Clinton, April 23: But the data leads to a second conclusion that despite all this progress we’re just not there yet. … Yes, we have increased the number of countries prohibiting domestic violence. But still more than half the nations in the world have no such laws on the books.

Clinton made a similar statement at the U.N. Conference on Women last month — this time placing “the number of countries prohibiting domestic violence” at 76.

Clinton, March 10: We’re not there yet when despite having increased the number of countries prohibiting domestic violence from just 13 in 1995 up to 76 today, more than half the nations in the world still have no laws on the books.

That’s not accurate. UN Women, the United Nations entity that advocates for “gender equality and the empowerment of women,” produced a report titled “2011-2012 Progress of the World’s Women: In Pursuit of Justice” that says there has been “significant progress on legal reform in favour of women’s rights in the past 30 years.”

Specifically, the UN report said 125 of 194 countries, or 64 percent, had domestic violence laws as of April 2011. (The State Department, which Clinton once headed, recognizes 195 countries.)

UN Women, 2011: Even within one generation we have witnessed a transformation in women’s legal rights, which means that today, 125 countries have outlawed domestic violence, 115 guarantee equal property rights and women’s voice in decision-making is stronger than ever before.

So nearly two thirds of all countries had domestic violence laws in place as of April 2011.

We forwarded a copy of the U.N. report to the Clinton campaign and asked for data to support the candidate’s claim that “more than half” of all nations do not have laws prohibiting domestic violence.

Nick Merrill, a Clinton spokesman, told us the candidate “may have been referring to marital rape or sexual assault.” Merrill said a World Bank study “says that 62 of 100 surveyed countries have not specifically criminalized rape and sexual assault within marriage.” That’s also inaccurate.

A World Bank report called “Women, Business and the Law 2014” found that 76 of 100 economies that it studied had domestic violence laws – up from just three in 1989. (We note that the 76 figure in the report is the same number used by Clinton in her U.N. speech last month.) The World Bank report also found that 57 of 100 economies it studied had laws explicitly covering “sexual violence” within a marriage — which would include laws explicitly prohibiting marital rape or sexual assault.

The World Bank report was not comprehensive, since it reviewed domestic violence laws in only 100 countries.

The UN Women report, which covered 194 countries, also looked at the issue of marital rape. That report said “at least 52 States had explicitly outlawed marital rape in their criminal codes.” The report used the term “at least” because there was unreliable or conflicting information in 14 nations, including in Belgium, Austria, Finland, and Switzerland.

That means at least 128 of the 194 countries — more than half — did not have laws that explicitly outlaw martial rape as of April 2011, according to the U.N. But the U.N. also noted that not having laws that explicitly prohibit marital rape does not necessarily mean that a husband cannot be prosecuted for raping a spouse.

The UN Women report says “general rape laws (except where exemption of a spouse is explicitly stated) do not preclude a spouse from being prosecuted.” The report added, “Explicit criminalization of marital rape is recommended as best practice by, among others, the Council of Europe.”

Clinton’s larger point — that there is still more work to be done on domestic violence — is well taken. But it’s simply inaccurate to say “the number of countries prohibiting domestic violence” is just 76 or that “more than half the nations in the world” have no domestic violence laws.

— Eugene Kiely