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Germany Passes 'No Means No' Rape Law

12/07/2016 09:17 | Updated 12 July 2016

Germany is finally catching up with more just standards on laws relating to rape. On Thursday, the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, passed a new sexual violence law, based on the premise that 'No Means No' - allowing, for the first time, for a victim not to have to actively fight back their attacker. The upper house, the Bundesrat, still has to vote, but it is likely to be enacted in the next few months.

Commentators had posed the question as to whether a victim under the previous definition needed to be killed or severely beaten to prove they did not consent to rape. This very narrow definition was among the reasons why there is a high level of impunity for rape in Germany.

According to reports, the revised legislation is also said to classify groping as a sex crime for the first time, punishable by a fine or a two-year prison sentence. It also includes provisions on when a victim is taken by surprise, intimidated or threatened.

The central European country has had a turbulent past with enacting and enforcing laws which ensure equal rights for women. In 1997, following 25 years of sustained efforts by local organisations, it was one of the last countries in Western Europe to outlaw rape within marriage.

Discussion around the New Year's Eve attacks in Cologne seems to have been a wake-up call for Germany, although women's groups had long been pressing the domestic issue and the new legislation has been under discussion for some time. Previous opposition to the bill has been relaxed, while attitudes to sexual violence have changed. Most Germans now want legal change on this issue. There appears to have been a paradigm shift on how both the general public and parliamentarians view rape, but the government needs to collaborate with specialist groups to ensure the law, and its enforcement, is unequivocal.

Regional pressure has also increased on Germany to update its restrictive law. In 2011, it signed the lstanbul Convention, the Council of Europe's roadmap on preventing and combating violence against women. In late 2014 the Convention came into force, although Germany - like the United Kingdom and many others - has yet to ratify it.

As is the case around the world, sexual violence is largely a hidden phenomenon in Germany. Accurate statistics are difficult to find, but according to Germany's DPA News Agency, 8,000 rapes were reported each year in the country. However, only 10% of victims are likely to have filed charges and less than 10% of these actually led to a successful conviction.

This reflects global estimates from the United Nations, which suggests that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives. The country has had a female head of state since 2005 and female political participation in Germany is at 36% according to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap report from 2015. While this means that a majority of men are still legislating for both men and women, it would be interesting to see if this closer balance of representation had any effect on the change in the law.

Germany also has some of the worst laws in the world relating to the sex trade. The legalisation of pimping, brothel-keeping and buying sex in 2002 has been a failed experiment and has led to an enormous expansion of the industry, with over 400,000 people now selling sex to over 1.2 million men each day.

Equality Now has worked on fixing sexist laws around the world for almost 25 years. We have seen how attitudes within governments and within broader society can influence the passage of good laws, which protect and promote the rights of women. We have also seen the flipside of this - how laws can help change attitudes in how countries value women.

Domestic violence was 'normal life' about 30 years ago. Female genital mutilation used to be a 'cultural tradition'. For many parts of the world, neither is now considered anything less than a grievous abuse of human rights and violence against women and girls.

Getting good laws in place to end sexual violence has proven to be more complex. Resistance by legislators has meant that far less progress has been made in the last 20 years than envisaged at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, which produced the Beijing Platform for Action, a blueprint for women's empowerment around the world.

We can only hope that the new German law will help to make it more likely that survivors of sexual violence access justice. However, many barriers will continue to exist. It is an extremely traumatic experience for victims to 'relive' what happened to them. In most cases, there is no third party eye-witness and victim-blaming is sadly still all too common - including by the judicial system. For the most part, the survivor needs to convince others there was no 'fault' on their part, for what they were wearing or where they were walking, or for something else they did or did not do.

The only reason rape happens is because of what rapists do, yet it is still incredibly rare for perpetrators to be given full blame, or even to be stigmatised by their actions. With 'No Means No' soon to be embedded in German law, let's hope it is indeed the start of the paradigm shift we urgently need to relegate sexual violence to the history books.

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