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Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai was accused Tuesday of supporting a law that legalizes rape within marriage. But in Canada, it was only 26 years ago that the law changed to make spousal sexual assault an offence.

Canadian women had the right to vote, but when it came to sexual assault, their rights were limited.

Prior to 1983, rape was considered an offence outside of marriage. That meant a husband could not be charged with raping his wife, and a wife could only charge her spouse with indecent assault, common assault or assault causing bodily harm.

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A year before the change to legislation occurred, NDP MP Margaret Mitchell raised the issue of violence against women. She was laughed at by MPs in the House of Commons when she demanded the government take action to stop domestic violence. The outcry from women's groups brought attention to the issue.

Bill C-127 came into effect on Jan. 4, 1983, making sexual assault against one's wife an offence. A wife can also charge her husband with aggravated sexual assault if the crime included a beating.

The crime of "rape" was removed from the Criminal Code and replaced with sexual assault. "The intention behind the change in terminology was to avoid the moral stigma connected to the word 'rape' and to stress the violent nature of the act," according to the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre.

Spousal rape is a crime in most parts of the Western world. In its 1993 declaration on the elimination of violence against women, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights established marital rape as a human-rights violation.

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