We must prove that justice can be served if we want victims to come forward.
By the European Women’s Lobby
We are experiencing an unprecedented engagement in women’s rights, with women mobilising on the streets, on social media, across sectors and borders and political divides. Women are speaking out about the injustice they experience, from the #metoo movement to the women’s marches and it seems finally society is listening. There is a growing awareness of remaining inadequacies in law and policy intended to support victims of sexual, gender-based or discriminatory crimes. The lid is off and the box is opened: there’s no turning back. We must now identify the best means of responding to violence against women that respect the rights of both accused and victim, and recognises the severity of the impact when a crime has occurred.
The “Wolf Pack” case in Spain highlights a critical inadequacy within the Spanish legal code on the definition and legal provisions on protection orders relating to rape and sexual assault. Like several European Union countries, the legal definition of rape neglects to include consent which is critical not only for the legal procedures but in securing prosecutions in cases of rape. The wolf pack case also clearly reflects the Spanish definition of rape which states, “When the sexual assault consists of vaginal, anal or oral penetration, or inserting body parts or objects into either of the former two orifices, the offender shall be convicted of rape with a sentence of imprisonment from six to twelve years.” To judge that this case was one of sexual assault which states that “Whoever offends against the sexual freedom of another person, using violence or intimidation…” is to minimise the harrowing experience of the victim in this case.
When reporting a crime, we seek justice. If you have been the victim of a serious crime nothing can undo the harm you have experienced, nor the trauma you must now deal with – but you should be able to rely on a fair trial leading to a just ruling and sentencing. So why does Europe so often fall short of delivering this when it comes to victims of sexual crime?
Rape continues to be one of the most devastating forms of violence against women, yet it is too often a taboo subject and it remains shrouded in silence. State actors often call on victims or observers of crime to report. We lament that reporting figures, and thus official state figures, do not accurately reflect the prevalence of sexual crime; reference at European level indicates that only between 2% and 10% of rapes are reported – cases such as these are unlikely to change this worrying reality. Even more than in the case of other forms of male violence against women, the general lack of data hides the extent of rape of women and the critical need to prevent and support the victims and survivors as well as prosecute and sanction rapists. In 2013, the European Women’s Lobby presented its Barometer on Rape, showing that criminal justice systems fail to deal properly with cases involving sexual violence.
Across Europe existing legislation is not enough and has to be implemented. In 2016 Germany shifted the focus of its sex crime laws to a model that shows an understanding of the complex ways in which sexual crimes can play out: coercion is not always traceable, provable or necessary as a defining aspect of non-consensual acts. The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 in Ireland introduced a legal definition of consent to Irish law for the first time and following a recent rape trial in the North of Ireland both North and South are now reviewing how rape trials are conducted. In France we are seeing a holistic acknowledgement of how societal norms impact on prevalence of sexual crime with the introduction of on-the-spot fines for cases of public sexual harassment.
Too often, changes to the law only occur in response to a tragedy. We must act now to prevent any more lives being torn apart unnecessarily. We know what we need to do, but the institutions, governments and judiciary must become proactive in ensuring change happens. How can we expect women and girls to go through the re-traumatisation, often accompanied by attempts at courtroom or public shaming, when conviction rates are so low? We must prove that justice can be served: that not only can prosecutions be made but also that sentencing will adequately reflect the severity of impact on the victim’s life.
The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, the Istanbul Convention, provides an essential framework in combating cases such as these. The Istanbul Convention requires States Parties to adapt their criminal legislation on sexual violence and rape to focus on the lack of consent as a constituent element of crime and move away from the still widespread requirement of use of physical force. The European Women’s Lobby calls for the complete ratification and implementation of the provisions of the Istanbul Convention and the ratification by the European Union and all member states. All forms of violence against women are part of a continuum of violence that aims to silence women and maintain them in a subordinate place.
This is why ending male violence against women and girls is a prerequisite to achieving real equality between women and men. It is time to listen to the voices of victims and survivors and to end the persistent impunity by bringing all perpetrators to justice, all over Europe. We stand in solidarity with our sisters in Spain and across Europe in combating this most pervasive violation of human rights.
The European Women's Lobby (EWL) is the largest umbrella organisation of women's associations in the European Union, working to promote women's rights and equality between women and men.
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