COPENHAGEN, DENMARK (NYTIMES) – Denmark, a country that regularly tops international indexes of gender equality and access to justice, is failing victims of rape, a new study shows.
The country has a “pervasive ‘rape culture’ and endemic impunity for rapists”, according to an Amnesty International report to be released on Tuesday (March 5) about the Nordic nation, which has long been held up as a bastion for equality.
“While there is a widespread perception in Denmark that gender equality has been achieved,” the study says, “this report shows that in the area of sexual violence, Danish authorities must do more to live up to this positive image.”
Reporting rape to the police can be a difficult and humiliating challenge in the country, where women say they are still met with gendered stereotypes that focus on their clothing or actions rather than their attackers. Most perpetrators are men and a majority go free.
Ms Sophia Corydon Smith, 29, contacted police after she was raped by a former colleague, and said authorities met her with reluctance and distrust, she recalled in a recent interview.
The police “made me very much in doubt about what I would achieve by reporting it”, she said of the experience, which happened four years ago.
She said the officers asked her to consider the damage that charges could cause for her attacker – a man she had worked with and considered a friend – and suggested that some women file false rape charges to cover for cheating on their boyfriends. One brought up the costs of a forensic examination.
She initially gave up and decided not to file a report. She later reconsidered and eventually, on her third attempt, a police report was filed. But the investigation into the attack was dropped before it ever made it to court.
Ms Ida Rud, 37, took a decade to realise that a friend who coerced her to have sex with him against her will had in fact raped her.
“There’s a widespread concept in Denmark that if you’re not beaten to a pulp with scratches inside and outside, it’s probably something you wanted,” she said.
The women are far from alone, the study says.
The Danish Justice Ministry estimated in 2017 that some 5,100 rape cases occur in Denmark that year.
Just a fraction of those attacks, around 890, were reported to the police, and only 535 led to charges against a suspected perpetrator. Only 94 of those rape cases resulted in guilty verdicts.
The Amnesty report points to an “antiquated” legal definition of rape that judges whether an attack occurred based on the use of violence rather than the absence of consent. That view extends from the courts to police practices to the mindset of citizens.
“Legislation carries culture,” said Ms Helle Jacobsen, Amnesty International’s researcher in Denmark. “We believe consent-based legislation and a consent-based society in the long term will work to prevent rape.”
Denmark is not alone. Only eight European nations – Britain, Ireland, Belgium, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Iceland, Germany and Sweden – have consent-based definitions of rape built into their legal codes.
“Now, a man can say, ‘She did not say no.’ But the question should be whether she said yes,” Ms Hanne Baden Nielsen, head of the Centre for Victims of Sexual Assault in Copenhagen, said in the report. “There must be a mindset change.”
While consent can be hard to prove in court, experts say it takes the burden of proving violence off victims and puts it on the accused to explain why they believed there was consent.
Mr Soren Pape Poulsen, the Danish Justice Minister, has recently signalled willingness to change the legislation. He declined to be interviewed.
Amnesty International also recommends mandatory training of lawyers, police officers and judges as well as sexual education in schools that include understanding consent, beyond the usual curriculum of pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.
“Authorities must improve the treatment of rape victims during all stages of the legal process and also ensure that rape myths and gender stereotypes are challenged in all levels of society,” said Mr Kumi Naidoo, secretary-general of Amnesty International.
Some victims struggle to even understand that what happened to them was a crime. Three in four rapes are committed by friends or partners of the victim.
Ms Liva Agger Jorgensen, 25, was raped by a man she knew at a music festival four years ago. He never hit or bruised her, so when she later searched a police website for information on rape, the descriptions didn’t match her experience.
“When you’re violated, but don’t feel you have the right to be violated and sense you should have acted differently, a sense of shame overwhelms you,” said Ms Jorgensen, who never reported the rape to the police. “I didn’t feel I was a victim in the right way.”
Ms Jorgensen is campaigning with Amnesty International for changes to the penal code, and has spoken to the news media to increase awareness about these types of crimes.
More and more women have begun to speak publicly about rape and sexual assault and, since 2016, several Danish newspapers have featured their stories.
“It’s a way to reclaim some territory,” said Ms Smith, who struggled to file a police report.
Before telling her story publicly, Ms Smith didn’t think she knew anyone with a similar experience. But since speaking out, others have come to her with stories of their own assaults.
Experts say there has been a growing awareness of the issues of consent and sexual assault over the past three years, and police officers have received some new guidelines on how to handle rape accusations.
But as long as women are told to be careful with how much they drink, what clothes they wear and how they behave, said Ms Nielsen from the Centre for Victims of Sexual Assault, Denmark still has a long way to go.
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