“Sexual violence is not just a problem in Cologne”
During New Year’s Eve, in the German city of Cologne, hundreds of women have been sexually assaulted on the square in front of the train station. The discussion that rose afterwards, is focused on the ethnicity of the attackers. Associate professor Anne-Marie de Brouwer, who specializes in sexual violence, says this is an incomplete approach: “It happens every day on the same scale, all over the world, but less visible.”A group of men attacked women on the streets of Cologne during New Year’s Eve, robbing them of their belongings and sexually assaulting them. It took a while for the news to come out. In a press release, the police even spoke of a ‘peaceful’ and ‘elated’ atmosphere. Later, accounts of the events of the night started appearing in the media, causing a big fuss in Germany and in the rest of the world.
The debate now mainly focuses on the ethnicity of the attackers, since witnesses claim that they had a ‘northern African or Arab appearance’. Even though it is not proven that they were refugees, the discussion about Germany’s welcoming attitude towards refugees has been pulled into the matter. According to Anne-Marie de Brouwer, associate professor at Tilburg Law School and specialized in sexual violence, this is not the right way to go. “What happened in Cologne is awful, everybody will agree on that. The people who are responsible for this, should be found and prosecuted. However, we should not focus on ethnicity”, she says. “Sexual violence is a big problem, everywhere in the world. It is committed by perpetrators of all ethnicities. And in both peace and war situations, on which I focus my research. Perpetrators and victims can furthermore be both men and women.”
“Maybe this incident can be placed in a bigger fight against sexual violence”
The mayor of Cologne, Henriette Reker, received critique after suggesting that it would help if women kept unwanted men an arm’s length away. “It is inappropriate to lay the responsibility on the victim,” says De Brouwer. “That has been done for years and even back then it was false. The responsibility should rather rest with the perpetrator. The mayor should acknowledge what happened, make an effort to catch who did it and try to make sure it does not happen again.” Ways to fight sexual violence against women include giving more attention to education and awareness raising from early age, making the justice system more effective and victim-friendly, and for political leaders, journalists and others to publicly step up against these crimes. Yet, more research on prevention methods and improving investigation and prosecution of sexual violence, says De Brouwer, is still needed. “Physical or sexual violence is a universal problem, around 35 percent of women face it worldwide. We need to know more about ways to prevent it.”
“Now that the Netherlands is president of the European Union, our government can also make an effort to put this matter on the European agenda,” says De Brouwer. “It has not received enough attention in Europe, maybe this incident can be placed in a bigger fight against sexual violence.”