25/07/2013 07:43 BST | Updated 23/09/2013 06:12 BST

UAE Must Reform Rape Laws to Stop Victims Being Prosecuted

The case of Marte Deborah Dalelv, a 25-year-old Norwegian convicted of extramarital sex after reporting rape in Dubai, captured global media attention and led to her swift pardoning on Monday.

Thankfully Marte can return home now but it is deeply concerning that a pardon was required and that her release only came as a result of global condemnation.

A pardon means that Marte was 'forgiven' by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, with her convictions for providing false testimony, drinking alcohol and extramarital sex still standing.

Although the pardon does not acknowledge an issue with the legal system, there quite clearly is a problem when a woman who claims to have been raped faces prosecution for illicit sex.

A woman should always feel comfortable to report an incident of sexual violence without fear of being charged. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), if rape allegations are deemed untrue by authorities a woman is at risk of being charged with having sex outside marriage.

Marte was sentenced to a 16-month prison sentence and her alleged attacker 13 months. Both were pardoned. It is by no means the first case of its kind, with an Australian and Emirati put in prison for extramarital sex after reporting rape in similar cases.

As it stands, the law only provides reassurance for potential attackers and affords little protection for the victim. Rapists know that the law discourages women from reporting attacks, fearing that they may face prosecution should they tell police.

The problem is not just a legal one. Victims of sexual crimes in the UAE face social and moral stigmatization that leads to the perception they have been defiled and are impure.

A lawyer quoted in The National on Marte's case said: "the incident might have started out by force then the victim might have got aroused and consented." The idea that rape can transform into consensual sex is a particularly shocking comment for a lawyer to make.

When a woman reports an incident of sexual violence she can be met with suspicion and authorities may fail to seriously investigate the allegations properly. Marte said that the police asked her if she had reported the incident because 'she didn't like' the sexual intercourse and told her they 'knew what kind of woman she was'.

These comments from lawyers and police officers demonstrate the treatment women face when reporting rape in the UAE. A woman's moral standing can be immediately questioned and this may contribute to a woman feeling responsible for having been raped.

The pardoning of Marte Delelv validates a system that does not protect women and spreads stigmatisation of women who report rape.

Authorities should have quashed the conviction, provided reparations for any suffering caused and publicly committed to ensuring protection for victims of sexual violence. By failing to do so the fear must be that there will be many more cases such as this one.

The law must be changed. The burden of proof in cases of rape must not be prohibitive to the pursuit of justice. Consensual sex between unmarried adults must be legalised to ensure victims of rape are not discouraged from reporting incidents to authorities.

Currently, the law is inconsistently applied and there is a complete lack of clarity. Moving forward, with reforms that ensure victims are protected, the law must be clear and implemented evenly.

In order to address the wider problem of moral stigmatisation, allegations of rape must be treated seriously and investigated properly. Victims should receive support in the form of counselling and the only moral outrage should be against the perpetrators of sexual crimes.

Marte Delelv may have escaped her nightmare and returned home to Norway but think of the many other victims we have not heard of. Migrant workers from South Asia are treated notoriously badly when reporting rape and Emirati women cannot escape the moral judgement in the way expatriates can.

For the sake of those women, who may not attract media attention in the way a Westerner does, there must be substantive reform. This case may have pricked the conscious of many, leading to the pardoning of a woman whose convictions remain, but it does nothing to deal with a system that will continue to treat victims of sexual violence as criminals.