Cologne attacks: Does Germany have a problem with sexual assault?

Activists say violence against women has been ignored for too long – whether the perpetrators are immigrants or native-born Germans.

Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters
Flowers and posters are placed in the square between the city cathedral and the railway station in Cologne, Germany, on Monday, where the vast majority of dozens of New Year Eve assaults on women took place. The texts read 'Sexual harassment against women will be NOT tolerated' and 'Next time for sure an arm length in advance' and 'Live without fear'.

The victims of the sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in Cologne and other German cities have figured as bit players, overshadowed by a raging debate over whether Germany has erred in accepting so many asylum seekers – 1.1 million last year.

But as the criminal complaints related to the attacks soar above 600 so far nationwide, the events in Cologne have also prompted a fresh look at sexism and violence against women in German society. The assaults have spurred a drive for tougher laws against offenders – immigrant or native – and the realization that even the most innocuous pass at a woman can no longer be tolerated.

“We have been blind in one eye,” says Alexander Bosch, a consultant for "hate crimes" for Amnesty International in Berlin. He says that reports of sexual assault have been documented for years at events like Carnival or Oktoberfest, but no one took it seriously until foreigners were believed to be involved. “We see the sexism of white guys, and we don’t talk about it.”


Of 516 criminal complaints filed to Cologne police as of Sunday, some 40 percent were for sexual offenses, including two rapes.

“Women, accompanied or not, literally ran a 'gauntlet' through masses of heavily intoxicated men that words cannot describe,” said a leaked internal police memo. Suspects were described as “North African or Arab” and police identified asylum seekers as some of the suspects Friday.

Women have tried to push their message above the deafening chatter around refugee policy that has since been unleashed. Some 500 women marched in central Cologne Saturday, dwarfed by a Pegida march and an anti-Pegida one, with signs reading “No means No!” and “Stay off of us!”

A group of young feminist activists, including Anne Wizorek and Antje Schrupp, have launched a social media campaign, calling for greater awareness of sexual assault and further consequences for those committing the assaults, regardless of their background. The campaign, called #ausnahmslos (#noexcuses), has already received political and organization backing.

“We expect zero tolerance at the executive level when it comes to violence against women as perpetrated by men, whether within the family or at home, in emergency housing, or outside in the open, no matter the man's country of origin ... whatever citizenship he possesses, however old he is, or his religion,” said Ramona Pisal, president of the German Women Solicitors.

Few cases brought to court

That hasn't been the case in recent years, however. According to Federal Association of Rape Crisis Centers and Women’s Counseling Centers in Germany, between 2001 and 2012, Germany averaged 8,000 reports of sexual assault per year, but the number of those that were brought to court numbered only 1,300 annually. In that entire span, there were fewer than 1,000 prosecutions, and only 10 percent of those resulted in conviction.

The government is moving quickly to update laws, debated throughout 2015, that would make it easier to punish sexual assault, including revising the requirement that a victim must try to fight back in order to get a conviction. Many of the "surprise" cases on New Year's would face a tough test since many women report not having had enough time to resist.

For now, women are shaken. “Up until now we've lived in a ridiculously free country,” says Katy, a Cologne resident. “Suddenly we're feeling really painful limits to our freedom, which the police themselves underestimated because there has never before been such an experience like this."

The fitness club Polizei Sport Verein in Cologne say their courses in self-defense are booked through March, and they have added additional classes for April. Local media reported that pepper spray, which is legal for use against people only as a last resort, was sold out in the city – though a weapons shop in Ehrenfeld in Cologne was stocked.

Justice Minister Heiko Maas has called it “a new dimension of crime that we will have to get to grips with,” and said he believes this was coordinated ahead of time. "My suspicion is that this specific date was picked, and a certain number of people expected. This would again add another dimension [to the crimes],” he told Bild am Sonntag.

Danger spots have long been known

Women across Germany have lamented that the problem is only receiving attention now. Many say while the scale is new, the violence is not. A University of Cologne student named Alina says she has always known to avoid Cologne's train station or other hot spots. “A few months back, I was slapped in the face by a junkie there so I know it's not a safe place to be," she says. "It's part of the deal with going out to clubs here; it's nothing new, we just try to avoid the places we know we'll be groped.”

Writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine on Sunday, Antonia Baum says men are trying to downplay the victimization of women. “One doesn't want to tell the story because suddenly the men who are interested in it are the same ones who previously had brushed feminists off,” the writer says.

Others have used the attack as an opportunity to discuss sexism in immigrant societies, including among refugees. There have been reports of domestic violence in refugee centers among a demographic flow that skews heavily toward men.

Mina Ahadi, who heads Cologne's ex-Muslim Council, an organization of former Muslims and expats from traditionally Muslim countries, says that contempt for women among extremists must be addressed by authorities – even if it creates tensions. The New Year’s Eve incident shows one thing clearly, she says: "A profound contempt for women."

Refugees are worried that these events will exacerbate anti-migrant sentiment, especially among women. A group of male Syrian refugees distributed fliers on the University of Cologne campus today condemning the attacks and apologizing for the criminal actions.

“These criminal actions stomped all over our cultural values – values which naturally include respect for women and men,” their flier read.

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