By Anna Błuś
Right now, courageous women are sparking change all over Europe, fighting for their governments to introduce legislation that defines rape based on lack of consent - as opposed to force - and improve how justice systems treat rape survivors.
On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, it is timely to pay homage to the women who keep fighting for their unequivocal right to autonomy over their own bodies.
The numbers of women still experiencing rape in Europe are shocking. In the EU, one in 20 women over 15 has been raped, and one in 10 has experienced some form of sexual violence.
Let’s start with the basics: sex without consent is rape. It is as simple as that. Surprisingly, this simple truth is not reflected in the rape laws of most European countries. Amnesty International has analysed rape legislation in 31 countries in Europe, and only eight of them have laws that define rape as sex without consent. The others all have legal definitions of rape based on force, threat of force or coercion or the victim’s inability to defend themselves.
However, change is happening country by country.
This year alone, Iceland and Sweden became the seventh and eighth countries in Europe to adopt new legislation defining rape on the basis of lack of consent.
These victories have not come by chance. They are the result of years of hard work by women activists, reclaiming their right to be safe from sexual violence. They are changes achieved by countless women, who are all too often betrayed by justice systems that refuse to acknowledge the devastating crime they have survived or fail to provide redress.
In Sweden, women’s rights organisations and activists campaigned for this change in legislation for more than a decade.
In 2013, a court's decision to acquit three young men accused of raping a 15-year old girl with a wine bottle until she bled, sparked the formation of a new national movement, FATTA (“Get It”). Through awareness-raising and campaigning their message gained currency. It took five years, but Swedish law now finally recognizes that sex without consent is rape.
Spain, Portugal and Denmark may be the next countries in line to recognize sex without consent as rape in their laws. Their government officials have all publicly stated that they are open to discussing such amendments to the legal definition of rape. Again, these positive steps come as a result of women fighting for change.
In Spain, millions of women took to the streets on the 8 March 2018 marching for a variety of women’s rights causes, including the right to be free from rape. The so-called “La Manada” case - where five men were found guilty of sexual abuse but not rape - also caused protests all over the country a month later. Spain’s deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo announced in July new laws making it clear that if a woman does not explicitly consent, that means no.
Women in Portugal were outraged in the aftermath of another high-profile case in which the court gave a suspended sentence to two men for “sexual abuse of a person incapable of resistance”. The case involved the assault of a woman in the bathroom of a bar during which she repeatedly lost consciousness. The demonstrations and media debates that followed showed that women are refusing to stay silent when their rights are trampled upon.
In Denmark, the Minister of Justice has said that he would consider adopting consent-based rape legislation following calls from activists and survivors. The scope of the reform is still under discussion but this Sunday, women in Denmark will protest in four different cities to demand change in legislation and greater protection from rape.
Over the last five years in Norway, an extraordinary number of high school students of all genders have joined a campaign against rape. Earlier this year, however, politicians failed them by voting down a proposal to adopt consent-based legislation.
Still, the overall trend is that we are heading in the right direction. European governments can no longer ignore the voices of women demanding sexual autonomy. Although women have campaigned against rape for years, #MeToo has expanded the space for conversation, making their voices even stronger.
The recent protests and an online campaign in Ireland in the aftermath of a rape trial during which a teenager’s thong was shown to the jury is another example of women’s anger fuelling action and solidarity. In the hours after the case was reported in the media, hundreds of women posted pictures of their underwear on social media, tweeting #ThisIsNotConsent to show their opposition to victim blaming.
In Northern Ireland, the highly publicised acquittal of four Ulster rugby players for rape and other sexual offences provoked nationwide discussions about the adequacy of the legal processes and their treatment of complainants. Nationwide protests led to an independent review of the handling of sexual violence cases and complainants’ treatment. Its preliminary recommendations, recognized the importance of challenging rape myths and providing victims with legal assistance.
For many survivors of sexual violence, it is a huge step to talk about their own experiences, overcoming the stigma still attached to rape, public shaming and threats. Their bravery should not be underestimated. Their stories are crucial to driving the message home to decision-makers that lack of consent must be recognised as a rape in law and in practice, and that impunity must end.
The Istanbul Convention, a human rights treaty ratified by the majority of European countries, requires states to criminalise all non-consensual acts of sexual nature. Changing laws will not eradicate rape. But it is a crucial step along the way.
It is an easy and tangible action for states to carry out, and it sends a very powerful message on what kind of society we want to live in: one where we are free from rape, and where everyone’s sexual autonomy and bodily integrity are respected and valued.
Anna Błuś is researcher on Europe. She works for Amnesty International
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the authors.