EU countries need stronger legislation to tackle rape

Crime, european parliament, Gender, Human Rights, photos, prostitution, sexual harrassment, United Kingdom, violence

Sexual violence against women is a most brutal crime, yet still remains a taboo subject in many countries.  It is estimated that almost every other woman in Europe suffers gender-based violence at some point in her life, with 1 in 5 victims of male domestic violence, and 1 in 10 victims of rape or forced sexual acts.

 Yet across the EU rape is one of the least reported crimes, with less than 10% of rapes being reported and far fewer cases ending in a conviction. While rape is criminalised in all 27 EU Member States, some have a broader definition of rape than others. Many EU countries still require proof of physical resistance or do not cover all forms of rape.

 I was therefore very happy to host an event at the European Parliament this morning to launch the latest report into how EU countries are tackling this hateful crime.

Hosting event to launch EWL Barometer on Rape 2103

Hosting event at European Parliament to launch 2013 EWL Barometer on Rape

The European Women’s Lobby Barometer on Rape 2013 looks at legislation and data collection in 32 countries. It compares them with the minimum standards for sexual violence and rape set by the Istanbul Convention (the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women, adopted in 2011 and currently being ratified).

The EWL found that just 5 countries have legislation that corresponds to the Istanbul Convention definition: the UK and the Netherlands who have “better legislation”, and Ireland, Italy and Turkey who meet minimum standards. The majority of countries (21) need to improve their legislation, recognising lack of consent as an essential element in determining rape and sexual abuse. Six countries need to urgently change their laws (Bulgaria, Hungary, Lithuania, Malta, Serbia and Ukraine).

The US election shows caring is the new politics

Labour Party

Radio 4’s Today programme ran a fascinating piece this morning on how much Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were thought by their electorate to care about the people whose vote they sought. Unsurprisingly Romney came out the worse by a long mile.

While not new in politics, the strength of the notion throughout the Presidential election campaign that politicians should care for the people they represent does, I believe, mark a sea change. The days when US citizens were concerned above all else about American might in the world are being overtaken by the feeling that politicians should care more about their voters as individuals, their daily lives and what matters to them, their families and their communities.

The way women voted is the most obvious example of this trend. Unlike racial groups who tend to vote a particular way, for example Latinos support Obama and in the UK the ethnic minority communities veer towards Labour, women owe no such allegiance. As 50 per cent of the population, women are just about as representative as you can get of the 100 per cent of voters.

The majority of women did not like Romney. They deserted him in droves. The principal reason for this extraordinary phenomenon was that women did not feel Romney cared about them, mainly because the GOP candidate and his Party chose to attack the only thing which makes women different from men – their reproductive capacity. The result was that women felt threatened and uncared for.

It was, in fact, quite a legacy for the Republican Party. In Missouri Todd Akin talked about “legitimate” rape, saying that if this was the case the female body had a way of shutting the whole thing down, Richard Mourdock from Indiana thought babies born as a result of rape were “a gift from God” while in the campaign for the Senate in Pennsylvania Tom Smith compared rape to unwed motherhood. Sadly, there is more. Atlantic Monthly gives a round up well worth a read.

Contraception and abortion were, of course, the other main focus of Republican attitudes to women. Romney himself is against abortion under any circumstances, opposed Roe v Wade and does not agree with insurance funding for contraception. Meanwhile Obama campaigned positively for contraception to be available and for women to have access to safe abortions.

Romney also looked as if he didn’t care about non-whites, highlighted by the phrase “he [Romney] hates Chinese”. Those who are less well-off fared possibly even worse when Romney stated that 47 per cent of Americans do not pay federal taxes.

The caring agenda came through loud and clear during the American Presidential campaign with women at the forefront. Governments and political leaders would do well to think hard about the American lesson. Individuals and their immediate concerns now really count and they want politicians to take note and look after them, taking up matters dear to their hearts rather than political, or in America, religious ideology.

Let’s Talk About Rape.

Labour Party

Throughout recent weeks the UK press has been unusually dominated with stories relating to rape, infidelities by powerful men and the sex industry. The stories have ranged from a leader of an exceptionally prominent organisation being arrested and charged for sexual assault, a British minister finding himself tripping over both of his left feet into a pit of indignant fire for trying to distinguish between “proper rape” and, well, that other kind of rape, to an insurance industry rewarding its employees with prostitutes. 

Between them however these stories have exposed the myriad complexities, prejudices and myths which continue to pervade both in the press and the public conscience about rape and about women. Which is why I think now is a good time to talk about rape. So, let’s talk about rape.

Firstly, I think we need to clear up what rape actually is. Although different countries and bodies define rape differently, we can use British law for the purposes of this discussion. According to British law, rape involves forced penetration (of either variety and for both sexes), done without consent. Given that this definition is fairly clear and simple, I have been ashtonished to find that so many people still persist in thinking there are many different types of rape. Apologists for this viewpoint argue that some rapes are violent, or multiple, or abusive. But that doesn’t change the rape aspect of the crime; that simply means that the rapist has committed additional crimes or aggravating factors. If a man abducts a woman and commits a violent rape upon her he is charged not with “really bad rape” but with rape, abduction, assault and possibly ABH or GBH. Simarly if a woman is gang-raped, all of the men who raped her are charged with rape. This is because she was raped more than once, not because she experienced a “worse” rape.

I believe that ultimately this dialogue in more serious/less serious rape is based upon a notion that there are gradations of consent (and the refusal of it). This is because, given that rape is penetration without consent, (discounting for additional crimes or rapes committed during, previous or after the rape in question), any notion of “worse” or “more serious” rape must lie in an evaluation of the degree of consent (or lack of it) involved.  For instance a women who was date-raped is viewed to have mildly refused her consent whilst a woman abducted by a stranger has strongly refused her consent.

To elaborate upon this point, I now move on to the debate surrounding the accusations made against Strauss-Kahn.  Now, I do not mean to presume that Strauss-Kahn is guilty simply because he was accused and I am a feminist. It is entirely possible that he is innocent and, whilst we may be able to form a clearer viewpoint after the court case, ultimately the only people who will ever know the complete truth about what happened in that hotel room were the two in it at the time. What bothers me however is the reasons many people are giving for why they believe Strauss-Kahn to be innocent; such as “he didn’t need to rape, he was rich and powerful”, and just like all the other rich and powerful men who have been shown to have been cheating on their wives this week, it is assumed to be a natural thing that there would be numerous women willing to engage in consensual sex with him.

Aside from indicating a total lack of understanding about why men rape, this shows our attitude to men, rapists and women. There is in this argument both the assumption that by being successful Strauss-Kahn has disqualified himself from being a potential rapist, and that rapists are only men who cannot gain consensual sex. Both of these are fallacies, but commonly accepted. The reasons for this tie back to the assumption that Strauss-Kahn’s success has somehow earned him the consent of women, because women’s consent is something that can be quantified and bought.

This leads us on to the story of the insurance giant which rewarded its top staff with prostitutues. What is especially telling about this story is not just that these successful men were rewarded with sexual gratification (or that this sheds another angle on possible reasons women are kept out of boardrooms) but that these women wore labels showing which men they were available to. The “highest class” ones were only available to executives. What this shows us is a snapshot of a society where men compete against other men to be successful and in return are rewarded according to their success with sexual gratification and access to women’s bodies.

 It is this culture in which women are viewed as commodities and status symbols that leads many to presume that Strauss-Kahn is innocent: Through being rich and successful he had become entitled to sexual access to a multitude of women. This is also why people believe that there are different types of rape – because there are different degrees of non-consent, because consent is something you can earn or have a right to. Bacially, in the popular mindset women are still something you buy, own or be entitled to. This isn’t just a view held by men but by any woman who has ever felt obliged to consent to sex. A date-rape is less bad than a stranger-rape because he had earned part of your consent by taking you out and treating you to dinner. If you get drunk/are promiscuous/dress ‘sluttily’ the rape is less bad because you have shown both that you are a lower price good and that your consent is more easily bought. There is a smaller degree of non-consent for a rapist to overcome so, during a rape, less consent is considered to have been refused than might otherwise be the case had you been sober/a nun/wearing baggy trousers.

Many people argue that the reason for the shockingly low conviction rates in the UK (6%) is because rape is a difficult crime to prove. But if that is the case why is the conviction rate for male rape so much higher? (419 convictions out of 532 cases in UK magistrates Courts in 1994). Why is rape of women treated so diffferently than rape of men? The reason – becuase juries and the public still view women’s bodies as commodities, heterosexual sex as an economic transaction and women’s consent as something that can be bought. Rape of women is viewed as something more akin to theft, a commodity not paid for but taken anyway. A crime, but not a serious one and whose gravity can be judged by evaluating the good that was stolen (by asking what the woman was wearing or about her previous sex life).

 This state of affairs will only change when women and men realise that women’s bodies are not commodities, and not even that “women’s bodies belong to them” as the slutwalkers would have it, but that women’s bodies are them. Women’s bodies cannot be bought, given, sold, taken or refused. It is not a bargaining tool. Sex is not a transaction. Rape is not theft: It is a violation of a woman’s person, of who she is. When our society recognises that they will finally start punishing rape in the way it should be punished and respecting women as equal integral members of society.

The Tories’ Real Record on Women’s Rights

Labour Party

I have been reading with some amazement recent statements on women from senior Tories, in particular David Cameron and Theresa May.  In David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party spring conference last month, he emphasised how “family-friendly” his party’s manifesto would be with the “right to flexibility to everyone with children”.  Last week Theresa May used the occasion of International Women’s Day to make a “pledge of support for women” in the Guardian online pages. 

All fine sentiments, but female voters beware!  Beyond Cameron and May’s words, there is little sense that there is any support for such policies in the core of the Tory party, or little evidence that the party leadership have the will to implement them.  Indeed, as I have blogged before, the voting record of Tory MEPs on women’s rights issues since David Cameron became leader is appalling, and exposes the fact that really nothing has changed in the Nasty Party.

For example, in 2006 Tory MEPs voted against a Report on combating violence against women, which included provisions on making rape within marriage a criminal offence, eliminating female genital mutilation, and encouraging cross border cooperation on so-called “honour” crimes, all matters mentioned by Theresa May in her Guardian article as commitments of a future Tory government. 

Yet it seems her MEPs do not share these concerns.  As recently as 2009, the Tory MEPs abstained in a vote urging member states to improve their national policies on combating violence against women, where the importance of recognising rape within marriage as a criminal offence was again underlined. 

On childcare, the EU adopted Employment guidelines as part of the EU’s Growth and Jobs strategy in 2008.  These guidelines included targets for flexible working, and access to childcare, surely a key element of Cameron’s pledge of the “right to flexibility to everyone with children”.  Again, this failed to get the Conservative MEPs’ backing.

In February of this year, the Tories voted against a report which included provisions on the need to tackle the gender pay gap – another issue Theresa May purports to be in favour of – and to link maternity and paternity leave.  The Tories in the European Parliament explicitly disagreed with the call to establish paternity leave across Europe, and against linking paternity and maternity leave to ensure fathers are able to take time off as well.  The report in question also contained a provision on one of David Cameron’s priority policies, combating persistent sexist stereotyping and degrading images.  Again the Tory MEPs voted against.

David Cameron said last month in his speech that as a parent he “dreads switching on the television and being bombarded with commercial messages”.  However, in 2008, the European Parliament discussed the issue of advertising and stereotypes in the media.  Member States were urged to ensure that marketing and advertising did not uphold discriminatory stereotypes, and consider the impact of advertising on children and teenagers’ body image and self-esteem, and yet 15 Tory MEPs still managed to vote against this measure.

I continue to be amazed at the disingenuousness of Cameron’s approach.  If he and his party were serious about family friendly policies and women’s rights, they would not let their MEPs vote so brazenly against these reports which recognise the importance of these issues. 

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that, with a general election drawing near, the Tories suddenly remember that they need to try and appeal to women, who do make up over 50% of the electorate, but I would urge female voters not to fall for these well-scripted sentiments, when time and time again it can be shown that they are not supported by the Tories in any way that matters.

Women of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Whose Justice?

Labour Party

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is today a flourishing European state, which looks set to secure its place as a member of the European Union in the next few years.  Its current image stands in stark contrast to that of the 1992 to 1995 period, which witnessed a bitter war and countless human rights violations. Among them were rapes, killings, forced displacement, and other crimes against humanity.  During the war, women comprised a large proportion of the total victims, with rape being actively used against them as a tool of war.  Estimates of the numbers of women raped range between 20,000 and 50,000, though the actual figure has proved difficult to determine.

Fourteen years on, and justice in the majority of cases has still not been served.  In an attempt to reverse this lack of progress, a unique event organised by Amnesty International and chaired by my fellow Socialists and Democrats Group member, Emine Bozkurt MEP, was held yesterday in the European Parliament.  Its aim was to provide an opportunity for Parliamentarians to hear first-hand the experiences of women who were directly affected by this issue, so that MEPs might find a way of moving things forward.

This initiative is not a new one.  In fact, Amnesty International has been working for six years on the current project and on helping victims of rape to fight for the justice they deserve.  In September it published a report entitled Whose Justice? Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Women Still Waiting, which highlights the on-going struggle women are experiencing in trying to obtain justice in BiH, and which seeks to offer some hopes for the future.

The report is shocking in parts.  It notes first of all that rape is a crime under international law and that it is the only crime of sexual violence recognised explicitly by the Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).  Yet to date there have only been 18 rape convictions at the international level for the 1992 to 1995 period in BiH.  Even more disturbing is that many perpetrators have now found themselves holding high positions in the region, be it in municipalities, banks or schools, and victims are rarely in a position to stand up to them.

Achieving justice is not the only important consideration.  A significant issue identified by Amnesty and other NGOs is that the ICTY has by and large failed to address the long-term psychological, social and economic needs of the survivors of sexual violence.  Unlike at the International Criminal Court (ICC), where survivors have the right to be represented thoughout criminal trial proceedings, at the ICTY survivors can only participate if they themselves provide evidence at The Hague.  Understandably this can have a damaging impact upon victims, who risk their personal safety and expose themselves to added trauma in their determination to see their violators brought to justice.

The question, then, is what can be done in the light of this report?  One idea put forward by Amnesty is to encourage the Bosnian authorities, NGOs and victims to meet together, and to set up a state strategy on reparations for victims.  This is something the authorities have been avoiding for some time.  The European Parliament and other legislative bodies must push the issue up the agenda, and ensure that the Bosnian authorities face up to the needs of victims.  It has been 17 years since the start of the war in BiH, and it will be many more years before a reasonable number of convictions have been secured.  I believe that it is up to those who have the power, including myself, to speak up for the victims of rape in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to ensure that those responsible for grave crimes against humanity and war crimes are held to account for their actions.


Women's Rights

I am appalled at this story. The “game” involves

Players begin the game by stalking a mother on a subway station before violently raping her. They then move on to attack her two daughters described as virgin schoolgirls. ”

Once exposed Amazon have beaten a hasty retreat with this :

Amazon spokeswoman Patty Smith said: “We’ve removed this title from our site. We determined that we did not want to be selling this particular item.”

Patty has to apologise quite frequently for Amazon wanting to make money despite offensive behaviour by Amazon.  

Banning sales of the Koran? Click here.

Infringing patents? Click here.

Exploiting UK workers? Click here.

Fiddling the accounts? Click here.

I could google on. What’s pretty clear is that Amazon’s corporate culture, is one of make money first, ask questions second.

I think it is very sad that Patty Smith  just keeps on apologising rather than tackling the corporate culture. I do not want anybody sacked, but I do want Amazon to be open about what happened. I want to know which “executives” bought this game. I want to know how many “executives” played this game and thought it was “fun” I want to know their names. I want to see the notes on who they thought their market was? How much money they projected making. All these seedy, sleazy men and women who work for Amazon and thought making some money out of rape was mighty fine by them.

I want to know the names of all the contaminated people, not one of whom had the conscience to whistle blow.

Then let’s publish the names on the internet they make their living from, so their friends, neighbours and colleagues know these are the people who think rape is a nice fantasy, and “just a bit of fun”.

If one of them goes out and rapes a woman having been allowed by Amazon to consider rape is something that is just a game to make money out of; up will pop Patty Smith, Director of Corporate Affairs claiming this is just an “isolated” lapse.

In one of those you could not make it up coincidences Amazon sell a film called “The Shame of Patty Smith” and it is about gang rape.