Women across Europe failed by outdated rape legislation

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6 Dec 2018
[International Secretariat]
Topic: Women's Rights

Most European countries still do not recognize in law that sex without consent is rape, Amnesty International said on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, highlighting how flawed legislation and a dangerous culture of victim blaming is perpetuating impunity across Europe.

In a briefing released today, Amnesty International analyses rape legislation in 31 countries It found that only 8 of these countries have consent-based definitions of rape, while the vast majority only recognize rape when physical violence, threat or coercion is involved.

“Although movements like #MeToo have inspired many women to speak out about their experiences, the sad fact is that rape remains hugely underreported in Europe. Women’s fear of not being believed is confirmed time and time again, as we see courageous survivors who do seek justice frequently failed by outdated and harmful definitions of rape in law and treated appallingly by justice officials,” said Anna Błuś, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Western Europe and Women’s Rights.

“Laws have the power to enable justice and influence attitudes. Time and again, surveys show that many people still believe it’s not rape when the victim is drunk, wearing revealing clothes or not physically fighting back. Sex without consent is rape, full stop. Until governments bring their legislations in line with this simple fact, the perpetrators of rape will continue to get away with their crimes.”

According to the most recent survey from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), one in 20 women in the EU has been raped since the age of 15 – about 9 million women. Despite these shocking statistics, few European countries treat this crime as seriously as they should in law.

Out of the 31 European countries covered in Amnesty’s briefing, only Ireland, the UK, Belgium, Cyprus, Germany, Iceland, Luxembourg and Sweden define rape as sex without consent. Sweden changed the definition only in the past few months, in response to years of campaigning by Amnesty and others.

The other countries mentioned in Amnesty’s research are: Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Switzerland.

These all have legal definitions of rape based on force, threat of force or coercion or the victim’s inability to defend themselves. Worryingly, some countries categorize sex without consent as a separate, lesser offence, sending a strong message to people that “real rape” only occurs when physical violence is used. For example, in Croatia, “sexual intercourse without consent” carries a maximum penalty of five years, as opposed to ten years for rape.

In some countries rape and sexual violence laws are still framed in terms of crimes related to “honour” or “morality”, supporting the idea that society has the right to control women’s bodies. In Malta, for example, sexual offences fall under the chapter of “crimes affecting the good order of families”.

Consent-based definitions of rape and legal reforms are not the ultimate solutions to addressing and preventing this ever-present crime, rather they are significant starting points.

> Everyone, regardless of their gender, can be a victim of rape. However, it is a crime that disproportionately affects women and girls.

As shown by the briefing, women’s attempts to seek justice for rape are hindered not only by outdated laws.  They also frequently face prejudice, victim blaming, negative stereotypes and myths, often coming from the very officials tasked with providing them support, investigating and prosecuting crimes of sexual violence.

A wave of change

On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Amnesty International is highlighting the determination, strength and courage of activists across Europe who are fighting against impunity for rape and pushing for changes to their country’s laws. Over the past year, women in many countries have come together to express their outrage about high profile rape cases and demand better protection from their governments.

In April protests broke out in Spain after five men accused of the gang rape of a woman were found guilty of a lesser charge of sexual abuse due to the outdate law, despite the court finding that the woman had not consented to sex.

In recent days women in Ireland have been posting pictures of their underwear and tweeting #ThisIsNotConsent in solidarity with a 17-year-old girl whose thong was presented to the jury by the defence in a shocking bid to undermine her claim of rape.

This Sunday, women in Denmark will protest in at least four different cities to demand change in legislation to ensure that sex without consent is rape.

Spain, Portugal and Denmark may be the next countries to change their legislation, with government officials publicly stating that they are open to discussing amendments to the legal definition of rape.

“Rape is a grave human rights violation that should always be recognized as a serious crime,” said Anna Błuś.

“By changing the laws and ensuring the end of victim blaming and gender stereotypes in legal proceedings, European governments can ensure the next generations of women never question whether rape is their fault, and never doubt that the perpetrators will be punished. And ultimately, are better protected from rape.”

24 November 2018