Monday, February 3, 2020

Are European women safe under the current sexual assault laws?

Only 9 European countries legally define rape as “sex without consent”, all the others (including other 22 EU member states) consider that, for this type of sexual assault to be considered actual rape, there has to be some sort of form of force or violence involved. Some countries have even yet to criminalise marital rape. This means that, if a woman is raped but the perpetrator doesn’t use force, or if she does not fight back, if there are no signs of forced penetration or violence, it is not considered rape by the law.  

In 2020, rape culture is still very much alive and women’s safety continues undermined and overlooked. 
The shift in the legal definition of rape to “sex without consent” may seem not revolutionary enough to some but, the fact is that many women are raped without any signs of violence and when they do report it to the police, they realize that nothing can be done for them because the assault does not fit the definition of the crime they are reporting. 

More and more women have been protesting for a change in these parameters and clamouring for safety. One of the most viral worldwide protests were the ones which featured the song “El violador eres tu”. The song was first sang in the feminist protests in Santiago in Chile, but it has since gained international power becoming a powerful feminist anti rape culture anthem, the lyrics are very explanatory and state clearly that we need to stop victim blaming. It has been sang in many countries in many different protests, from Chile, to Turkey, to Spain and the UK (to name a few). Victim blaming and unsafe sexual assault laws are an international problem. 
The European Union usually believes to be living in this utopic microcosmos of human rights abiding citizens, striving for better lives, evolving day by day. Well, is the EU that evolved if its member countries’ laws regarding sexual assault are so patriarchal, victim blaming and apologetic of rape culture as they were before its formation? To be succinct: no. 

In November 2019, 5 men accused of gang raping a 14-year-old girl in Spain were acquitted of rape by a Barcelona court only to be charged with the lesser version of the crime, “sexual assault”. Considering that the victim was unconscious and no violence was needed to coerce her, the court couldn’t consider it actual rape, since the law states that rape implies force. After this case caused controversy and angered many people, Spain started reviewing its laws on sexual assault and is on the right path towards change but they still have a long way to go towards women’s safety and equality. 

Another recent case, in Cyprus, involved a British woman and several Israeli men. She was allegedly gang raped by 12 Israeli men.  This woman reported it to the police, a few days later she signed a retraction, claiming she was forced to go back on her word by the police. She was convicted for false reporting and sentenced to 4 months in jail, ending up just spending one month in prison and getting released on bail. Another case in which victim blaming becomes a problem and turning the narrative onto the victim to make the men look good. Several activists and women’s rights organizations protested against this case. Cyprus authorities did nothing about it. This woman now has PTSD and a criminal record. 

In Portugal, a psychiatrist raped one of his patients while she was pregnant. He was considered innocent for the victim was restrained and therefore had the opportunity to run away, because she didn’t have any physical signs of struggle, he walked freely. The patient was on her 8 month of pregnancy, during which sexual intercourse should be taken seriously and cautiously for it may cause premature labour, specially if the act in itself causes great stress to the woman. This case shocked the country but nothing really changed. There have been other similar cases. However, the law remains the same. 

To make matters worse, some countries do not even consider marital rape a crime. Marital rape or spousal rape is the act of sexual intercourse with one's spouse without the spouse's consent. Most women who suffer this kind of assault do not report it, so it is hard to find cases and statistics on it. Data collection on this issue is very difficult.

The Istanbul Convention states clearly that the countries who have signed it must have laws that consider rape as to being the act of "sex without consent". Countries which have signed the convention but have not changed their laws considering sexual assault are therefore in breach of International Law and should be on their way to change them. This Convention was signed in 2011. Nine years have passed and change is yet to come.

Men are also affected by the lack of protection of sexual assault victims under most constitutions, considering that the are also victims of this crime. Still, statistically, most sexual assault victims are women.

In conclusion, women in general are not safe under most countries’ sexual assault legislation. Gender based violence is still very much an issue in 2020. The law needs to change. What can we do it about it? March, create petitions, protest, unite. Change will happen if we fight for it!

Mafalda Cortesão

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