Passport

With New German Law, Nein Might Finally Mean Nein

A new law passed in Germany adds weight to whether or not a rape victim says "no."

COLOGNE, GERMANY - JANUARY 09:  Protesters wave German flags, alongside a banner saying 'Rapefugees Not Welcome' as supporters of Pegida, Hogesa (Hooligans against Salafists)  and other right-wing populist groups protest against the New Year's Eve sex attacks on January 9, 2016 in Cologne, Germany. Over 100 women have filed charges of sexual molestation, robbery and in two cases, rape, stemming from aggressive groping and other behavior by gangs of drunken men described as Arab or North African at Hauptbahnhof on New Year's Eve. Police have recently stated that at least some of the men identified so far are refugees, which is feeding the propaganda of right-wing groups opposed to Germany's open-door refugee policy. Germany took in approximately 1.1 million migrants and refugees in 2015.  (Photo by Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images)
COLOGNE, GERMANY - JANUARY 09: Protesters wave German flags, alongside a banner saying 'Rapefugees Not Welcome' as supporters of Pegida, Hogesa (Hooligans against Salafists) and other right-wing populist groups protest against the New Year's Eve sex attacks on January 9, 2016 in Cologne, Germany. Over 100 women have filed charges of sexual molestation, robbery and in two cases, rape, stemming from aggressive groping and other behavior by gangs of drunken men described as Arab or North African at Hauptbahnhof on New Year's Eve. Police have recently stated that at least some of the men identified so far are refugees, which is feeding the propaganda of right-wing groups opposed to Germany's open-door refugee policy. Germany took in approximately 1.1 million migrants and refugees in 2015. (Photo by Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images)

Last New Year’s Eve, as Germans gathered to ring in 2016, a group of men organized themselves around the train station in the western city of Cologne, then ganged up on women as they passed through, robbing and sexually assaulting them. By the time all was said and done, more than 1,000 women had filed complaints to police, and an overwhelming number of them described the throng of perpetrators as men of “Arab and North African origin.”

On Thursday, six months after the city’s mayor, Henriette Reker, suggested some of the victims could have helped to prevent the attacks by “keeping a certain distance of more than an arm’s length,” the German parliament passed a new law that will make it easier for victims to report sexual assaults if they said “no” to their attacker. It will also simplify the process of deporting foreign perpetrators if they’re found guilty.

“In the past there were cases where women were raped but the perpetrators couldn’t be punished,” German Minister for Women Manuela Schwesig said Thursday. “The change in the law will help increase the number of victims who choose to press charges, lower the number of criminal prosecutions that are shelved and ensure sexual assaults are properly punished.”

The New Year’s attacks rattled Germany, and sparked a national conversation about the country’s relatively lax sexual assault laws (marital rape was not criminalized in Germany until 1997). They also prompted fears that in a country already sharply divided over whether or not it should be accepting migrants and refugees, the accusations against Arab men could prompt further, large scale backlash against asylum-seekers.

According to the German Justice Ministry, only one of every ten rapes committed in Germany is ever reported, and of the rape trials that do take place, only eight percent result in conviction. And, as chronicled in a January Foreign Policy article, Germany’s criminal code has historically failed to protect victims, namely by only criminalizing rape if the act involves force, or “in other words, when violence is used or threatened, or when the victim is in a defenseless situation.” 

Thursday’s law was passed with overwhelming support in parliament, and greeted with a standing ovation from lawmakers. It came just one day after two suspects from the mass attacks in Cologne arrived in court to face trial: one is from Algeria, the other from Iraq.

Photo credit: Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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