Sexual violence is a global problem affecting all cultures and religions

Marsch zum Tahrir-Platz gegen sexuelle Belästigung, Februar 2013

Ten experts from eight different countries share their views and perceptions of the assaults committed on New Year’s Eve in Cologne. A contribution to the ongoing debate on sexualised violence and harassment in Germany.

After the sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in Cologne and other cities in Germany and the ensuing debate on German refugee policy, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung asked some of its foreign-based offices whether the events in Cologne had been an issue in those countries and how sexualised violence is counteracted locally. We wish to offer a change of perspective and contribute to acknowledging sexual violence as a global problem. Which strategies are considered to be encouraging by experts?

We would like to draw your attention to the fact that, according to the report issued by the Bundeskriminalamt (Federal Criminal Police Office) on 24 January 2016, it is as yet unconfirmed that the New Year’s Eve offenders are predominantly of "North African" origin. Due to a lack of information about the offenders’ countries of origin, the Bundeskriminalamt wishes to refrain from making any (additional) generalising statements.

Jana Smiggels Kavková from the Czech Republic

Jana Smiggels Kavková

"I’ve been working in the field of gender equality since 2005. The debate about Cologne soon emerged in the Czech Republic and was promptly associated with the European refugee crisis. Xenophobic politicians and commentators were railing most loudly. They, who had never shown the slightest interest in this topic or had even denied the existence of violence against women, suddenly became the most fervent advocates of women’s rights. Now they can be heard telling people that gender equality was and is one of the fundamental values of our society, which is kind of bizarre.

The principle of collective guilt vaguely drifted into the public sphere. It is really sad that people do not even begin to consider this problem until they hear that delinquents are allegedly foreigners.

We as feminists were accused of not having picked up on the incidents in Cologne for reasons of "political correctness." After years and years of commitment against gender-based violence we found this accusation very irritating.

Violence against women is an enormous problem in our country, just like anywhere else in the world. According to the latest statistics, one in three women in the Czech Republic has suffered some type of violence at least once in her lifetime; most frequently this occurs in her own home.

The principal goal of our work at the moment is for the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention to be ratified. This would mean a major step forward to help protect female victims of violence. The fight against racism and the fight for women’s rights must be two sides of the same coin."

Jana Smiggels Kavková is director of Forum 50 % and chairperson of the Government commission for equal representation of women and men in politics, she is member of the board of the Czech and European Women’s Lobbies.

Shalini Yog from India

Shalini Yog

"To see the Cologne incident as a problem of young Muslim migrant men isn’t very helpful. Similar anti-women hooliganist incidents occur frequently in Delhi and elsewhere. Attributing this sort of violence to men of a specific region or religion is being judgmental, I would say. Those responsible for this nasty incident are misogynist men, the majority of whom apparently having lived in predominantly gender-segregated societies. For them, women who break traditional rules of conduct need to be chastised.

This sort of behaviour by men coming from closed societies where an equitable coexistence of women and men is not permitted is neither a typical phenomenon of people from the Arab world or from North Africa, nor is it specific for any single religion such as Islam.

India is replete with religions and cultures, with traditional ways of conduct making way for modernity and women embracing freedoms in a way hitherto unprecedented. At the same time, sexual crimes are being committed against women, and are being reported to the police ever more. Here, it would be a wrong approach to ascribe the offenders to religion, ethnicity or caste, but it needs an understanding of those contexts wherein strict gender norms are commanded by the society at large.

From the Cologne incident, Germany must send out a clear message that there would be ‘no tolerance’ for sexual offenders with the strictest of punishment. Yet, it must not entirely condem migrants. Germany’s refugee policy has been inspiring, humane, and a model for the rest of the world. The good, the bad and the ugly co-exist everywhere in every culture, religion and society. The bad and the ugly need weeding out. A social dialogue with migrants, men and women alike, is the order of the day instead of tightening the Asylum Act.

In India, much has happened since the anti-rape protests of 2012. The government-appointed 'Verma committee' has come up with suggestions on how to fight more effectively against sexual violence. Many of the recommendations of this progressive report were taken up, for instance an expanded definition of sexual assault which now also includes 'stalking' and voyeurism. Moreover, a law on sexual harassment at the workplace has been adopted.

These advancements are also due to the transformed ways in which the government, civil society and women’s organisations are interacting. There is much more open support and dialogue at all levels. Social dialogue and community intervention is key.

Shalini Yog is Programme Coordinator for macro-economic policy and gender in the office of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in New Delhi, India.

Zuzana Maďarová from Slowakia

"The public debate about the attacks in Cologne was strongly influenced by the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2016. For many parties, among them the governing party, migration is the dominant issue of their election campaigns. Hence the incidents in Cologne were used to fan fear of migrants.

Prime Minister Robert Fico said measures would have to be taken to prevent Slovak women from being molested in public, as was the case in Germany. Therefore the borders of the Schengen area would have to be controlled more effectively. In order to keep the country safe, the formation of "compact" Muslim communities should be prohibited.

The Islamic Foundation in Slovakia strongly opposed these declarations and so did feminist organizations and individuals, which pointed out that the serious problem of violence against women persists in Slovakia as well as other countries. Several concrete steps were suggested to be done if the Government really wants to fight against gender based violence. For instance, here in Slovakia we are still waiting for the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. It can be an instrument to systematically counteract and pre-empt gender-based violence.

Women in the European, so called Catholic culture experience sexualised violence on a daily basis. At the same time, we must find ways of addressing violence against female migrants.

We need to look for ways of discussing real problems pertaining to the situation of women in those countries where greater numbers of migrants come from."

Zuzana Maďarová has been working for "ASPEKT", the first feminist NGO in Slovakia, since 2005. She is currently seconded national expert at the European Institute for Gender Equality in Vilnius.

Zarqa Yaftali from Afghanistan

Zarqa Yaftali
"The sexual assaults of women in Cologne were widely debated in Afghanistan, especially with regard to refugees coming from Afghanistan.

Neither our faith nor our laws or social standards justify this kind of behaviour. It is a criminal act and must be punished accordingly.

In Afghanistan we have conducted research on sexual harassment, the results of which were alarming. It was found that fathers, brothers, uncles, university professors, Islamic scholars and civil servants molested women and girls. Hence sexual violence is definitively a problem in Afghanistan. Since 2014, our organisation has argued the case for a criminalization of sexual harassment in the public sphere, at the workplace and in educational institutions. Owing to our work, a regulation has been adopted by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and voted upon by the cabinet. The government is now under pressure coming from both civil society and women’s organisations. Support from the international community would help us make further progress."

Zarqa Yaftali from the province of Badakhshan in Afghanistan is the director of the "Women and Children Legal Research Foundation (WCLRF)" (private authorship, all rights reserved).

Anne Emmanuèle Hassairi from Tunisia

"Of course we have heard about the debate in Germany. The Maghrebinian community was named and shamed, stigmatised and discriminated. And yet sexual harassment in the street is a worldwide problem which the international community has done precious little to contain. Unfortunately the incidents in Cologne were, yet again, used only to refuse refugee status to future migrants, men and women indiscriminately.

In Tunisia we have a law against sexual harassment at the workplace. However, it is applicable only in cases of repeated offence. Which means that women have to endure molestations several times over before being able to press charges. Being molested just once is absolutely legal, you’ll be sorry to hear.

A few countries such as Spain or Germany have adopted statutory provisions against intra-marital violence. Belgium for instance has sanctioned street harassment. Good examples of the enormous progress which has been made. And yet we still need a widespread social debate on the status of women and their right to fully enjoy their individual liberties and, in so doing, be granted protection against all forms of violence.

Introducing mechanisms to protect women is not enough. What we need is a set of preventive measures.

These would have to include measures regarding gender equality, nationality and citizenship as well as the absence of all violence against children and adolescents. Raising awareness in the media and sanctioning sexist and racist broadcasts are part and parcel of this prevention strategy."

Anne Emmanuèle Hassairi is chairperson of the Tunisian Organisation of Democratic Women (ATFD).

Bochra* und Badr* fromTunisia

"The incidents in Cologne were shared widely in the social networks. Many Tunisians, men and women, expressed their solidarity with the victims of these sexual assaults; some Tunisians even took to the streets in Cologne to show their solidarity. With the media focusing exclusively on immigrants and asylum seekers, attention was distracted from the general problem of sexual harassment in the streets.

In Tunisia, a number of organisations fight against this type of violence by offering victims psychological support and legal assistance. Since 2012 we have been participating every year in a ten-day event during which secondary school students are made aware of the problem of violence against women. We have discussions with a few hundred students, girls and boys.

A collective against street harassment has recently been founded under the name of 'One day – one fight' and assembles several feminist and LGBT organisations. Our own organisation 'Chouf' (Arabic for: 'Take a closer look') offers self-defence classes for women free of charge.


On a personal note, I would like to add that the people involved in the incidents in Cologne are not representative of Maghrebinian society and that their conduct has appalled and disgusted many Tunisians."

Bochra is a member of the LBT NGO "Chouf", Badr is chairperson of "Damj", the Tunisian Association for Justice and Equality.
* For safety reasons, their family names remain anonymous.

Ramy Khouili from Tunisia

Ramy Khouili

"The fact that so much attention in Germany was paid to the ethnic background of the aggressors may indeed be exploited by racist and xenophobic groups. The Tunisian Ministry of Women’s Affairs currently works on an encompassing draft bill to combat all forms of violence against women and girls.

The bill will include preventive measures, sanctions against offenders and counselling of victims. These issues are given priority in the national fight against violence towards women, particularly against sexualised violence. This is an important step. However, the bill should really be all-encompassing in that it attacks the root of the problem, which is the socially accepted inequality of women."

Ramy is a member of the Euro-Med Network for Human Rights at its office based in Tunis and works as a political adviser for the Maghreb.

Lidia Balogh from Hungary

Lidia Balogh

"As a reaction to events in Cologne, there were two prevailing points of view in Hungary: left-liberal voices emphasised the global dimension of violence against women, opting for a 'colour-blind' approach. Right-wing and conservative proponents (in unison with government rhetoric and policies) saw 'migration as a threat for Europe', calling for 'honesty' in addressing the incidents.

A few individuals, myself among them, stood for a kind of mixed response and suggested discussing the incidents within the framework of gender-based violence. At the same time attention would have to be drawn to problems of social integration and issues such as harmful traditions (for instance extreme forms of control over women) in certain migrant communities

It is beyond dispute that the discourse was marked by a decisive change: Before 'Cologne,' the practise of 'victim blaming' (how women were dressed, whether they had consumed alcohol or indulged in 'hazardous' behaviour) pervaded the debate in Hungary. Accordingly, the feminist approach, which focused on the offenders and the social context of violence, was strongly criticised. This has now changed completely.

Most recently, mainstream opinion has come round to advocating the right of European women to dress or party the way they like. Surprisingly, a liberal 'feminist-blaming' could be heard thrashing out slogans such as 'Where are the feminists?' or 'Why do feminists remain silent about Cologne?' In fact feminists had not remained silent at all. Still it was quite frequently alleged that 'Cologne is to be blamed on liberal feminists who suppressed concerns about migration and male migrants'. Some of these anti-feminist comments came close to tub-thumping.

In fighting sexualised violence, the role of the media and of education must be underlined. Images and texts full of contempt for women, such as 'slut shaming' or putting the blame on the victims, often prevents persons concerned from turning to the authorities. And yet the media can have a very positive effect. To raise awareness among children and young people about their rights to self-determination, autonomy and integrity and to encourage them to respect the dignity of others are key elements of a successful strategy to combat sexual violence.

Without wanting to diminish the suffering of the victims of 'Cologne' and similar incidents in European cities, we must also remind ourselves that there have been many cases of abuse within 'white' German society and just as many within communities with a migrant background. Media in the West unfortunately tend to focus on 'black-on-white' crimes."

Lidia Balogh is a junior research fellow at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Centre for Social Sciences, and a Ph.D. candidate at "ELTE University" in Budapest. The title of her doctoral thesis is: “’Colour-blind’ or ‘Honest’? Racial and Ethnic Affiliation as Sensitive Data in the News Media".

Maryam Bibi, Pakistan

Germany has a relatively good reputation worldwide as regards its human rights policy. Incidents such as in Cologne and the ensuing debate may ultimately damage that reputation. Before putting the problem of sexual violence down to refugees, one should be fully aware of the identity of those who committed these acts.

The world is changing incredibly fast. Many events played out on a regional or national scale are direct consequences of global politics – and the majority of people are suffering massively from this fact. Germany is among the few countries which has opened its arms to welcome refugees. And yet it seems a long way to go to consider and treat refugees as persons having equal rights.

In Pakistan sexualised violence is a pervasive problem. Sexual assaults against women are largely considered normal, and forced marriages, domestic violence or child abuse and child labour are daily fare. The new laws adopted by the National Assembly which are to protect the rights of women and children, find little or no backing in popular culture or traditional interpretations of religion and faith. It is all the more important that the media assume their responsibility in raising awareness and that civil society persists in protesting against violence and demanding punishment for the perpetrators.

Change and emancipation must be based on an understanding of local particularities and the respective cultural standards, and requires the participation of women. No sustainable change can be accomplished without them.

Maryam Bibi works for “Khwendo Kor” (Home of the sisters). This NGO campaigns for the empowerment of women.

Mamello Matthews from South Africa

Mamello Matthews

“Regarding South Africa, it is very difficult to assess the extent of sexual violence , due to under-reporting; it is estimated that only between 7% and 15% of rape victims report the offence to the police.

Sexual violence is deeply ingrained in patriarchal mentalities, which is evident in instances where lesbians are targeted as rape victims. In 84% of cases of rape of girls under the age of 12, the girls know the tormentor as opposed to 52% of adult women.

Oftentimes sexual violence is used as a way to regain control, especially considering the changing perceptions of masculinity in today’s society.

Despite law and policy changes made by the South African government, their implementation is virtually ineffective in a context where stereotypes regarding sexual violence victims pervade. The government needs to ensure that their employees are adequately trained and equipped to deal with sexual offences. Additionally, campaigns targeting all facets of the population need to be launched in order to change the public. All blameworthiness must be removed from victims and the focus should be turned towards perpetrators of sexual violence.“

Mamello Matthews is currently doing her contract of community service with the Women’s Legal Centre as a Candidate Attorney. As a Candidate Attorney, her main task is to gain experience within our focus areas, while providing support to the Attorneys in relation to impact litigation and advocacy. Mamello graduated from the University of the Western Cape with a L.L.B degree and obtained a Masters Degree in International Law and Human Rights from the University of the Western Cape. She completed an internship at the South African Human Rights Commission where she assisted with investigations in relation to human rights violations by conducting extensive research as also extensive field work.