- - -
stories

Stories

Latest stories from IPPF EN

Spotlight

A selection of stories from across the Federation

image CSE comic strip
Story

Sexuality education keeps young people safe from harm

A comic strip story about how all young people have the right to build the crucial skills and knowledge that they need to be safe, healthy and happy.
Image red umbrella
story

| 20 December 2023

Supporting the health and safety of sex workers in Portugal

Providing healthcare and support to the sex worker community has been part of the work of APF, IPPF's Portuguese member, for over 20 years. The organisation’s northern regional delegation, APF Norte, has been operating Espaço Pessoa – a service providing care to sex workers and people who use drugs - in Porto since 1997. We spoke to Alexandra Ramos and Jorge Martins from APF Norte about Espaço Pessoa’s work. Espaço Pessoa has both a community centre and a street team working on the ground with people who do sex work. In addition to specialised psychology, nursing and social services, the centre’s users have access to changing rooms, clothing, and laundry facilities. Meanwhile, the street team provide sex workers with contraceptive care, information, and advice on STIs, as well as essential screening tests for syphilis, HIV and Hepatitis C, and vaccinations. By listening actively to the concerns and difficulties of the communities they support, they are able to build trust, to talk to people about their social rights, provide crucial psychosocial support and make referrals to more formal support services when necessary. Over the last decade, Espaço Pessoa’s team has observed a massive shift from people working on the street to indoor sex work. This is particularly true for trans sex workers, who face multiple layers of stigma and high levels of violence. Alexandra Ramos said, ‘Although when they are inside, sex workers are more protected from the everyday verbal abuse they face on the street, in many ways their vulnerability has increased; there is little to no protection from violent clients when working alone in an apartment.’ Legal framework falls far short of protecting sex workers Sex work is not criminalised within the Penal Code in Portugal. However, the law states that third parties are not permitted to profit from, promote, encourage or facilitate prostitution, which was originally intended to prohibit brothels and pimping. In some cases, this can be problematic for sex workers wishing to work together or in collective settings. Public and political discourse is very much focused on defining women who do sex work as victims, or conflating sex work with trafficking, despite these being two distinct issues. This perpetuates the notion that sex work can never be a choice; the reality is it is still not recognised as work. The Constitutional Court issued a statement in May 2023 in favour of sex workers’ rights, stating that criminalising all third parties without distinguishing between exploitative and non-exploitative ones is unconstitutional. Although this is a welcome move, APF believes that the national legal framework still has a long way to go to support sex workers, and underlines that there is still a lot of social and political division. Language plays a big part, and APF explains that the term sex work, preferred by the people who do the work, affirms the agency of sex workers and helps to destigmatise both the work and those who do it.  Sex workers experience many, often intersecting, systemic inequalities and oppressions, and the criminalisation of aspects of their work exposes them to high levels of violence and rights violations. APF explains that in Portugal, undocumented sex workers are at particular risk because of their lack of access to social rights, together with the current legal context and the social stigma that they face. These factors mean that they rarely report incidents to police for fear of repercussions. Many of those now engaging in sex work are non-nationals, predominantly from Brazil, which means most fall through the cracks. Jorge Martins underlined the difficulty in providing care for those excluded by the system: ‘Undocumented people face the greatest difficulties in accessing social and healthcare services. Unfortunately, referral becomes very difficult, which places them in increasingly marginalised, hidden and helpless spaces.’ At least, according to APF, migrant sex workers are rarely targeted by law enforcement and a service providing some healthcare for sex workers is provided within Portugal’s national healthcare system, although access becomes much more complicated in cases where coordination and referral to other services is required.   Adapting to the changing needs of sex working people Sex workers are some of the most marginalised and socially stigmatised groups in Portugal. The transient nature of their work means some lead extremely solitary lives. Alexandra said: “People are socially isolated, and many of them move from city to city, and room to room, without creating any links outside of the local bus station or airport. Opportunities to establish social support networks are increasingly few, particularly outside of the sex work circuit. Homelessness has also become an increasingly big problem with rent hikes making access to housing a massive barrier.” In response to changing needs, APF Norte has considerably increased the number of shifts of its street team, and initial contact is typically made through consulting sex workers’ adverts online.  Through their continuous presence, they have established a good level of trust with the sex worker community. Crucial to that is the presence in their team of a peer educator who has firsthand experience of sex work and is therefore able to play the role of trusted mediator with some members of the community, working in close collaboration with the technical team. APF’s approach has enabled it to support people with interventions that go beyond the delivery of contraceptives. Empowerment and education are key to eradicating stigma Espaço Pessoa tends to reach sex workers who have no other support system, so their outreach places a great deal of emphasis on empowerment. Sex workers navigate legally precarious territory, which means many have internalised stigma. Ingrained perceptions make some more likely to accept being subjected to sexual and physical violence, and/or non-consensual sexual practices. The Espaço Pessoa team works to build awareness of these issues amongst sex workers by educating them on their human rights, teaching them to recognise harmful behaviour, as well as deconstructing the myths and underlying prejudices surrounding sex work, always with a commitment to supporting the needs and autonomy of each person they reach. *** Read more about IPPF’s global policy position on sex work, which strongly supports decriminalisation of all aspects of sex work, together with social policies that address structural inequalities, as the only way to protect the health, safety and lives of those who do sex work.  Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash  

Image red umbrella
story

| 20 December 2023

Supporting the health and safety of sex workers in Portugal

Providing healthcare and support to the sex worker community has been part of the work of APF, IPPF's Portuguese member, for over 20 years. The organisation’s northern regional delegation, APF Norte, has been operating Espaço Pessoa – a service providing care to sex workers and people who use drugs - in Porto since 1997. We spoke to Alexandra Ramos and Jorge Martins from APF Norte about Espaço Pessoa’s work. Espaço Pessoa has both a community centre and a street team working on the ground with people who do sex work. In addition to specialised psychology, nursing and social services, the centre’s users have access to changing rooms, clothing, and laundry facilities. Meanwhile, the street team provide sex workers with contraceptive care, information, and advice on STIs, as well as essential screening tests for syphilis, HIV and Hepatitis C, and vaccinations. By listening actively to the concerns and difficulties of the communities they support, they are able to build trust, to talk to people about their social rights, provide crucial psychosocial support and make referrals to more formal support services when necessary. Over the last decade, Espaço Pessoa’s team has observed a massive shift from people working on the street to indoor sex work. This is particularly true for trans sex workers, who face multiple layers of stigma and high levels of violence. Alexandra Ramos said, ‘Although when they are inside, sex workers are more protected from the everyday verbal abuse they face on the street, in many ways their vulnerability has increased; there is little to no protection from violent clients when working alone in an apartment.’ Legal framework falls far short of protecting sex workers Sex work is not criminalised within the Penal Code in Portugal. However, the law states that third parties are not permitted to profit from, promote, encourage or facilitate prostitution, which was originally intended to prohibit brothels and pimping. In some cases, this can be problematic for sex workers wishing to work together or in collective settings. Public and political discourse is very much focused on defining women who do sex work as victims, or conflating sex work with trafficking, despite these being two distinct issues. This perpetuates the notion that sex work can never be a choice; the reality is it is still not recognised as work. The Constitutional Court issued a statement in May 2023 in favour of sex workers’ rights, stating that criminalising all third parties without distinguishing between exploitative and non-exploitative ones is unconstitutional. Although this is a welcome move, APF believes that the national legal framework still has a long way to go to support sex workers, and underlines that there is still a lot of social and political division. Language plays a big part, and APF explains that the term sex work, preferred by the people who do the work, affirms the agency of sex workers and helps to destigmatise both the work and those who do it.  Sex workers experience many, often intersecting, systemic inequalities and oppressions, and the criminalisation of aspects of their work exposes them to high levels of violence and rights violations. APF explains that in Portugal, undocumented sex workers are at particular risk because of their lack of access to social rights, together with the current legal context and the social stigma that they face. These factors mean that they rarely report incidents to police for fear of repercussions. Many of those now engaging in sex work are non-nationals, predominantly from Brazil, which means most fall through the cracks. Jorge Martins underlined the difficulty in providing care for those excluded by the system: ‘Undocumented people face the greatest difficulties in accessing social and healthcare services. Unfortunately, referral becomes very difficult, which places them in increasingly marginalised, hidden and helpless spaces.’ At least, according to APF, migrant sex workers are rarely targeted by law enforcement and a service providing some healthcare for sex workers is provided within Portugal’s national healthcare system, although access becomes much more complicated in cases where coordination and referral to other services is required.   Adapting to the changing needs of sex working people Sex workers are some of the most marginalised and socially stigmatised groups in Portugal. The transient nature of their work means some lead extremely solitary lives. Alexandra said: “People are socially isolated, and many of them move from city to city, and room to room, without creating any links outside of the local bus station or airport. Opportunities to establish social support networks are increasingly few, particularly outside of the sex work circuit. Homelessness has also become an increasingly big problem with rent hikes making access to housing a massive barrier.” In response to changing needs, APF Norte has considerably increased the number of shifts of its street team, and initial contact is typically made through consulting sex workers’ adverts online.  Through their continuous presence, they have established a good level of trust with the sex worker community. Crucial to that is the presence in their team of a peer educator who has firsthand experience of sex work and is therefore able to play the role of trusted mediator with some members of the community, working in close collaboration with the technical team. APF’s approach has enabled it to support people with interventions that go beyond the delivery of contraceptives. Empowerment and education are key to eradicating stigma Espaço Pessoa tends to reach sex workers who have no other support system, so their outreach places a great deal of emphasis on empowerment. Sex workers navigate legally precarious territory, which means many have internalised stigma. Ingrained perceptions make some more likely to accept being subjected to sexual and physical violence, and/or non-consensual sexual practices. The Espaço Pessoa team works to build awareness of these issues amongst sex workers by educating them on their human rights, teaching them to recognise harmful behaviour, as well as deconstructing the myths and underlying prejudices surrounding sex work, always with a commitment to supporting the needs and autonomy of each person they reach. *** Read more about IPPF’s global policy position on sex work, which strongly supports decriminalisation of all aspects of sex work, together with social policies that address structural inequalities, as the only way to protect the health, safety and lives of those who do sex work.  Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash  

image CSE comic strip
story

| 07 December 2023

Sexuality education keeps young people safe from harm

Comprehensive sexuality and relationship education is a vital prevention tool in the fight against gender-based violence. When we support young people to develop knowledge and skills to navigate issues like consent and gender norms, we empower them to build healthy and respectful relationships, and address the root causes of GBV.       

image CSE comic strip
story

| 10 December 2023

Sexuality education keeps young people safe from harm

Comprehensive sexuality and relationship education is a vital prevention tool in the fight against gender-based violence. When we support young people to develop knowledge and skills to navigate issues like consent and gender norms, we empower them to build healthy and respectful relationships, and address the root causes of GBV.       

Justyna
story

| 06 December 2022

Justyna: ‘I may be sitting alone but I am not alone’

‘They want to leave women alone with their ‘problem,’ says Polish women’s rights defender, Justyna of the ruling ultra-conservative party in Poland.  Justyna, a mother of three, works in an increasingly hostile environment, one in which women’s sexual and reproductive rights (SRHR) are being completely dismantled. Poland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, only permitting abortion when the life or health of the pregnant woman is endangered or in the case of rape or incest. On 22 October 2020, the Polish Court went further and ruled that abortions could no longer happen in cases of foetal illness or abnormality. The only way for women who need a safe abortion is to rely on NGOs and women’s rights defenders, like Justyna, who enable self-administrated abortions; a safe and easy way avoid being forced through a pregnancy.

Justyna
story

| 07 December 2022

Justyna: ‘I may be sitting alone but I am not alone’

‘They want to leave women alone with their ‘problem,’ says Polish women’s rights defender, Justyna of the ruling ultra-conservative party in Poland.  Justyna, a mother of three, works in an increasingly hostile environment, one in which women’s sexual and reproductive rights (SRHR) are being completely dismantled. Poland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, only permitting abortion when the life or health of the pregnant woman is endangered or in the case of rape or incest. On 22 October 2020, the Polish Court went further and ruled that abortions could no longer happen in cases of foetal illness or abnormality. The only way for women who need a safe abortion is to rely on NGOs and women’s rights defenders, like Justyna, who enable self-administrated abortions; a safe and easy way avoid being forced through a pregnancy.

Safe from harm campaign image
story

| 16 November 2022

Anything less than yes is rape: the campaign for a consent-based rape law in Sweden

The absence of a ‘no’ is not an implicit yes. This is the overarching principle of a long-fought Swedish ‘consent law’ aimed at dismantling the ‘no means no’ framework; a system rooted in the idea that a person needed to explicitly resist for it to constitute rape. Women’s rights activist Demet Ergun is hopeful the law, which came into force in 2018, will facilitate understanding of consent but adds dryly that ‘People don’t pay enough attention to the fact that sex should be something done ‘with’ someone, not ‘to’ them.’ As President of the women’s rights coalition Fatta, Demet knows all too well the time-worn path to legislative change. It was Fatta that spearheaded the campaign to reform Swedish rape laws. The movement for change was sparked when the acquittal of three 19-year-old men accused of raping a 15-year-old* girl with a glass bottle in 2013 provoked mass protests. From the ashes of this horrifying rape case, feminist resistance rose up. Fed up with having women’s and girls’ experiences of sexual violence minimised by society and courts of law, the founders of what was to become Fatta began to gather together, collecting women’s stories and raising public awareness, before formally establishing the organisation. Under the new law, rape survivors no longer have to prove there was threat, force, or that they were taken advantage of in a vulnerable situation. The law states that consent can never be freely given by people who are intoxicated, incapacitated, under duress, or in a situation of unequal power dynamics or dependency, such as sex between a teacher and their student. After the law was implemented, Sweden saw rape conviction rates rise by 75% between 2019 and 2020. Four years ago, many of these cases wouldn’t legally have constituted rape; a shocking indictment of just how many survivors of sexual violence have never received justice. Gender-based violence expertise or training is still not required to be a juror in a rape trial, which Demet says must change. Sweden’s consent law also introduced a new, lesser offence of ‘negligent rape’ to make it possible to get justice for survivors in cases where courts found that while the intent to knowingly disregard the victim’s lack of consent could not be proven, the perpetrator had failed to clarify whether or not consent was being given, and therefore should have stopped and asked. The law’s acknowledgment that rape can still happen in the absence of force or threat is important to dismantling the myth that most rape is perpetrated by strangers. It also rejects the notion that prior consent is ‘forever’ consent and includes situations in which the victim ‘freezes’ or is taken by surprise and does not have time to react. Demet explains that the presumption of innocence until proven guilty hasn’t been replaced, but now the court has to decide whether or not consent was given: ‘Previously the victim had to prove that there was a strong indication of resistance. Now the accused has to show they received consent and how this was interpreted. A key difference is that physical evidence is no longer required. This is important because of the 'frozen fight' situation; often people can’t fight off perpetrators or control how their body reacts.’ Opponents of the law argue consent can’t be proven, but sexual violence campaigners insist that it can be expressed clearly either verbally or through nonverbal cues, such as positive body language like smiling, maintaining eye contact, and nodding. We have been taught that sex is about setting a silent ambiance and that talking can ‘break the mood’. However, questions can facilitate a positive sexual experience in myriad ways from creating comfort to establishing intimacy.

Safe from harm campaign image
story

| 24 November 2022

Anything less than yes is rape: the campaign for a consent-based rape law in Sweden

The absence of a ‘no’ is not an implicit yes. This is the overarching principle of a long-fought Swedish ‘consent law’ aimed at dismantling the ‘no means no’ framework; a system rooted in the idea that a person needed to explicitly resist for it to constitute rape. Women’s rights activist Demet Ergun is hopeful the law, which came into force in 2018, will facilitate understanding of consent but adds dryly that ‘People don’t pay enough attention to the fact that sex should be something done ‘with’ someone, not ‘to’ them.’ As President of the women’s rights coalition Fatta, Demet knows all too well the time-worn path to legislative change. It was Fatta that spearheaded the campaign to reform Swedish rape laws. The movement for change was sparked when the acquittal of three 19-year-old men accused of raping a 15-year-old* girl with a glass bottle in 2013 provoked mass protests. From the ashes of this horrifying rape case, feminist resistance rose up. Fed up with having women’s and girls’ experiences of sexual violence minimised by society and courts of law, the founders of what was to become Fatta began to gather together, collecting women’s stories and raising public awareness, before formally establishing the organisation. Under the new law, rape survivors no longer have to prove there was threat, force, or that they were taken advantage of in a vulnerable situation. The law states that consent can never be freely given by people who are intoxicated, incapacitated, under duress, or in a situation of unequal power dynamics or dependency, such as sex between a teacher and their student. After the law was implemented, Sweden saw rape conviction rates rise by 75% between 2019 and 2020. Four years ago, many of these cases wouldn’t legally have constituted rape; a shocking indictment of just how many survivors of sexual violence have never received justice. Gender-based violence expertise or training is still not required to be a juror in a rape trial, which Demet says must change. Sweden’s consent law also introduced a new, lesser offence of ‘negligent rape’ to make it possible to get justice for survivors in cases where courts found that while the intent to knowingly disregard the victim’s lack of consent could not be proven, the perpetrator had failed to clarify whether or not consent was being given, and therefore should have stopped and asked. The law’s acknowledgment that rape can still happen in the absence of force or threat is important to dismantling the myth that most rape is perpetrated by strangers. It also rejects the notion that prior consent is ‘forever’ consent and includes situations in which the victim ‘freezes’ or is taken by surprise and does not have time to react. Demet explains that the presumption of innocence until proven guilty hasn’t been replaced, but now the court has to decide whether or not consent was given: ‘Previously the victim had to prove that there was a strong indication of resistance. Now the accused has to show they received consent and how this was interpreted. A key difference is that physical evidence is no longer required. This is important because of the 'frozen fight' situation; often people can’t fight off perpetrators or control how their body reacts.’ Opponents of the law argue consent can’t be proven, but sexual violence campaigners insist that it can be expressed clearly either verbally or through nonverbal cues, such as positive body language like smiling, maintaining eye contact, and nodding. We have been taught that sex is about setting a silent ambiance and that talking can ‘break the mood’. However, questions can facilitate a positive sexual experience in myriad ways from creating comfort to establishing intimacy.

Spanish protests on sexual violence
story

| 16 November 2022

Legislating the path to consent: Spain's Yes Means Yes law

‘Everyone has the right to live without violence. You can have sex without love, but always with care’. This is the message Filomena Ruggiero wants people to take away. For her, broadening the concept of violence and placing the focus on ‘yes’ contributes to a better understanding about sex as an encounter that is wanted and not one of obligation. A long-time women’s rights champion, Filomena, who is policy adviser and advocacy lead at SEDRA-Spanish Federation for Family Planning (SEDRA-FPFE), says the collective trauma resulting from a shocking rape case in 2016 was the catalyst for change and provoked a wave of feminist action across the country. Spain’s ‘yes means yes’ consent law, which came into effect in October 2022, was sparked by the acquittal of five men who raped an 18-year-old woman during the 2016 Pamplona bull-running festival. Dubbed ‘the wolf pack’ case, there was widespread outrage after the court argued footage showing the woman motionless with her eyes closed, was proof of consent. Again, four years after the rape in Pamplona, a group of men who gang raped a 14-year-old girl in Catalonia were convicted of the lesser charge of sexual abuse, this time because the victim was intoxicated. Both cases highlighted the abject inadequacy of Spanish rape legislation, which previously stated violence or coercion had to be present for it to be considered rape. Relics of a patriarchal system, previous rape laws in Spain were steeped in sexist assumptions about consent and so-called ‘acceptable’ behaviour. Cases so often hinged on the behaviour of the victim, as if this had somehow contributed to or excused rape. What the survivor was wearing, drinking or doing at the time was put under the spotlight, and not the actions of the accused.  The legal changes mean victims will no longer have to provide proof of violence or threat of violence, coercion or resistance against their attacker(s) in court. Plying someone with drugs or alcohol to coerce them into sex is a criminal offence, and digital violence, such as threats or non-consensual sharing of images, has also been criminalised. The new law maintains the presumption that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. But going forward it is the defendant who will have to prove there was consent and the victim will have to prove there was no consent. The law also aims to avoid secondary victimisation that results when institutions and individuals acting on their behalf, for example lawyers, the judiciary and the public prosecutor’s office, seek to discredit the victim by asking unnecessary and intrusive questions about her private life that are rooted in gender stereotypes and prejudices. An alliance of feminist organisations, which included SEDRA-FPFE, played an integral part in drafting the new law. They ensured the introduction of 50 crisis centres and 24-hour support for victims, as well as financial support. But Filomena says the issue now lies in resources. The national law needs to be implemented at the regional level, which means its application will be unequal. Nevertheless, the law reform sends a very clear message: nobody is entitled to your body, and consent is never given through coercion, intimidation, violence or incapacitation. Consent must now be freely given and expressed. If it is not, this is rape. Encouraging men to step up Street harassment – the provocative comments, whistling or gestures women are so often subjected to – is now also a criminal offence. This marks a paradigm shift to seeing sexual harassment as an issue of social justice. Despite this, the public outcry has galvanised the extreme right who view the reform as a threat to their regressive anti-feminist agenda. Opponents of the new law claim street harassment is part of Latin culture and something to be celebrated. Filomena rebuffs this arguing it defines women as sexual objects: ‘Catcalling is often viewed by men as something positive in Spain but the comments are of a sexual nature, which provokes insecurity and fear. It can limit women’s freedom in their choice of clothing, how they act or behave.’ Filomena believes men need to do more to end violence: ‘Social norms don’t change through laws alone but are constructed through a long cultural process. Boys and men are also victims of macho social norms. We must encourage men to stop other men from doing this and raise awareness.’ Filomena is adamant the role of men as peer educators is fundamental to the law: ‘We need to have a reflection in society on gender roles, and we cannot let macho groups distort and weaponize the debate. There is a lot of misinformation around the legislation. Male influencers should tackle this by speaking out about how this is really about putting desire at the centre, about sex being wanted and enjoyed. This would contribute to a better understanding of the law and of its consequences, which are very positive for men.’  

Spanish protests on sexual violence
story

| 24 November 2022

Legislating the path to consent: Spain's Yes Means Yes law

‘Everyone has the right to live without violence. You can have sex without love, but always with care’. This is the message Filomena Ruggiero wants people to take away. For her, broadening the concept of violence and placing the focus on ‘yes’ contributes to a better understanding about sex as an encounter that is wanted and not one of obligation. A long-time women’s rights champion, Filomena, who is policy adviser and advocacy lead at SEDRA-Spanish Federation for Family Planning (SEDRA-FPFE), says the collective trauma resulting from a shocking rape case in 2016 was the catalyst for change and provoked a wave of feminist action across the country. Spain’s ‘yes means yes’ consent law, which came into effect in October 2022, was sparked by the acquittal of five men who raped an 18-year-old woman during the 2016 Pamplona bull-running festival. Dubbed ‘the wolf pack’ case, there was widespread outrage after the court argued footage showing the woman motionless with her eyes closed, was proof of consent. Again, four years after the rape in Pamplona, a group of men who gang raped a 14-year-old girl in Catalonia were convicted of the lesser charge of sexual abuse, this time because the victim was intoxicated. Both cases highlighted the abject inadequacy of Spanish rape legislation, which previously stated violence or coercion had to be present for it to be considered rape. Relics of a patriarchal system, previous rape laws in Spain were steeped in sexist assumptions about consent and so-called ‘acceptable’ behaviour. Cases so often hinged on the behaviour of the victim, as if this had somehow contributed to or excused rape. What the survivor was wearing, drinking or doing at the time was put under the spotlight, and not the actions of the accused.  The legal changes mean victims will no longer have to provide proof of violence or threat of violence, coercion or resistance against their attacker(s) in court. Plying someone with drugs or alcohol to coerce them into sex is a criminal offence, and digital violence, such as threats or non-consensual sharing of images, has also been criminalised. The new law maintains the presumption that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. But going forward it is the defendant who will have to prove there was consent and the victim will have to prove there was no consent. The law also aims to avoid secondary victimisation that results when institutions and individuals acting on their behalf, for example lawyers, the judiciary and the public prosecutor’s office, seek to discredit the victim by asking unnecessary and intrusive questions about her private life that are rooted in gender stereotypes and prejudices. An alliance of feminist organisations, which included SEDRA-FPFE, played an integral part in drafting the new law. They ensured the introduction of 50 crisis centres and 24-hour support for victims, as well as financial support. But Filomena says the issue now lies in resources. The national law needs to be implemented at the regional level, which means its application will be unequal. Nevertheless, the law reform sends a very clear message: nobody is entitled to your body, and consent is never given through coercion, intimidation, violence or incapacitation. Consent must now be freely given and expressed. If it is not, this is rape. Encouraging men to step up Street harassment – the provocative comments, whistling or gestures women are so often subjected to – is now also a criminal offence. This marks a paradigm shift to seeing sexual harassment as an issue of social justice. Despite this, the public outcry has galvanised the extreme right who view the reform as a threat to their regressive anti-feminist agenda. Opponents of the new law claim street harassment is part of Latin culture and something to be celebrated. Filomena rebuffs this arguing it defines women as sexual objects: ‘Catcalling is often viewed by men as something positive in Spain but the comments are of a sexual nature, which provokes insecurity and fear. It can limit women’s freedom in their choice of clothing, how they act or behave.’ Filomena believes men need to do more to end violence: ‘Social norms don’t change through laws alone but are constructed through a long cultural process. Boys and men are also victims of macho social norms. We must encourage men to stop other men from doing this and raise awareness.’ Filomena is adamant the role of men as peer educators is fundamental to the law: ‘We need to have a reflection in society on gender roles, and we cannot let macho groups distort and weaponize the debate. There is a lot of misinformation around the legislation. Male influencers should tackle this by speaking out about how this is really about putting desire at the centre, about sex being wanted and enjoyed. This would contribute to a better understanding of the law and of its consequences, which are very positive for men.’  

Safe from harm campaign image
story

| 16 November 2022

Belgium’s consent law is clear: Absence of no doesn’t mean yes

‘Rape isn’t always something that happens when you are dragged into an alleyway’, says Heleen Heysse, Policy Officer at Sensoa, the Flemish centre of expertise on sexual health. ‘The subtle ways in which coercion can take place, as well as the many ways consent can be freely given, is within this law. It recognises people’s experiences and their trauma’. Heleen says the consent law which came into effect in June 2022 in Belgium is a victory for survivors and campaigners. The legislation unequivocally states: non-consensual sex is rape. Rape cases will now no longer hinge on whether a survivor said ‘no’ or fought back. Instead, it is an offence when consent is lacking, withdrawn or when advantage is taken of a victim’s vulnerable state. The consent-based definition also applies to other forms of sexual violence.   Sensoa has been at the forefront of campaigning for reform of the outdated sexual criminal law for many years. They say that within the new law, the absence of struggle or reaction can no longer be taken as implicit consent as it takes into account the freeze response – when a person is unable to react. Heleen stresses the presumption of innocence until proven guilty remains one of the core tenets of the Belgian justice system and investigations are just as rigorous. This, she says, contradicts the myth spread by opponents of consent-based legislation that women will use the law to falsely report rape; complaints of which are grossly overestimated. Previously, an assault could only be legally considered rape if coercion, physical force or verbal threats took place, or a person was unable to defend themselves. Like in many countries across the EU, rape victims had to prove that there had been violence or that they had explicitly said ‘no.’ Alongside this law, Belgium has also become the first country in Europe to decriminalise sex work, which Heleen and her colleague Julia Day say makes it easier for sex workers to report sexual violence. Training prevents victim blaming Up to 90% of rape cases in Belgium go unreported and only 4% of people file a complaint with the police. Julia and Heleen say this is due to the hurdles survivors face when reporting sexual violence, not to mention the trauma associated with interrogations and pervasive victim blaming. Julia says adequate training is essential: ‘It’s important police know and understand the law so when conducting an interview, they have guidelines on questioning to establish whether the victim consented freely.’ Reporting a rape is a big ordeal. Victims of sexual violence often blame themselves and are afraid they won’t be believed. Even under the new law, in Belgium, when someone reports a rape to the police, the legal process is kickstarted immediately. This can discourage people from reporting sexual crimes. Fortunately, the introduction of Sexual Assault Centres has vastly reduced reporting obstacles; 68% of survivors who came to a centre went on to file a complaint, significantly higher than the national average. This is largely because the support offered at the centres is focused on providing confidential care to survivors and helping them to rebuild their lives; it includes forensic analysis, trauma care, specially trained inspectors, psychologists and case managers in one place. It also enables marginalised groups, such as transgender people and sex workers to report rape in a safer environment. Currently, there are seven centres across Belgium and Julia says they hope to have one in every province: ‘Five years ago, we had nothing. It’s a good step forward. There’s a lot that needs to be in place to open a centre. They must be linked to other hospital services, there needs to be an HIV clinic and counselling as well.’ As regards the reporting process, the centres support survivors in a way that is sensitive to the extreme stress they are experiencing, and the impact it has on the ability to process information and form memories. Victims are filmed telling their stories and can decide later on if they want to press charges or not.   Heleen believes filming is vital to avoid retraumatisation: ‘It minimises how many times questions are asked, which reduces the emotional burden of the process.’ For Julia, it gives rape survivors a sense of control: ‘You get lost in the legal system with no idea what to expect and that’s scary, especially when the control has already been taken from you. When you have to repeat your story, it’s normal that it changes, and this can be used against you. Filming limits victim-blaming and puts them in a more powerful position.’

Safe from harm campaign image
story

| 24 November 2022

Belgium’s consent law is clear: Absence of no doesn’t mean yes

‘Rape isn’t always something that happens when you are dragged into an alleyway’, says Heleen Heysse, Policy Officer at Sensoa, the Flemish centre of expertise on sexual health. ‘The subtle ways in which coercion can take place, as well as the many ways consent can be freely given, is within this law. It recognises people’s experiences and their trauma’. Heleen says the consent law which came into effect in June 2022 in Belgium is a victory for survivors and campaigners. The legislation unequivocally states: non-consensual sex is rape. Rape cases will now no longer hinge on whether a survivor said ‘no’ or fought back. Instead, it is an offence when consent is lacking, withdrawn or when advantage is taken of a victim’s vulnerable state. The consent-based definition also applies to other forms of sexual violence.   Sensoa has been at the forefront of campaigning for reform of the outdated sexual criminal law for many years. They say that within the new law, the absence of struggle or reaction can no longer be taken as implicit consent as it takes into account the freeze response – when a person is unable to react. Heleen stresses the presumption of innocence until proven guilty remains one of the core tenets of the Belgian justice system and investigations are just as rigorous. This, she says, contradicts the myth spread by opponents of consent-based legislation that women will use the law to falsely report rape; complaints of which are grossly overestimated. Previously, an assault could only be legally considered rape if coercion, physical force or verbal threats took place, or a person was unable to defend themselves. Like in many countries across the EU, rape victims had to prove that there had been violence or that they had explicitly said ‘no.’ Alongside this law, Belgium has also become the first country in Europe to decriminalise sex work, which Heleen and her colleague Julia Day say makes it easier for sex workers to report sexual violence. Training prevents victim blaming Up to 90% of rape cases in Belgium go unreported and only 4% of people file a complaint with the police. Julia and Heleen say this is due to the hurdles survivors face when reporting sexual violence, not to mention the trauma associated with interrogations and pervasive victim blaming. Julia says adequate training is essential: ‘It’s important police know and understand the law so when conducting an interview, they have guidelines on questioning to establish whether the victim consented freely.’ Reporting a rape is a big ordeal. Victims of sexual violence often blame themselves and are afraid they won’t be believed. Even under the new law, in Belgium, when someone reports a rape to the police, the legal process is kickstarted immediately. This can discourage people from reporting sexual crimes. Fortunately, the introduction of Sexual Assault Centres has vastly reduced reporting obstacles; 68% of survivors who came to a centre went on to file a complaint, significantly higher than the national average. This is largely because the support offered at the centres is focused on providing confidential care to survivors and helping them to rebuild their lives; it includes forensic analysis, trauma care, specially trained inspectors, psychologists and case managers in one place. It also enables marginalised groups, such as transgender people and sex workers to report rape in a safer environment. Currently, there are seven centres across Belgium and Julia says they hope to have one in every province: ‘Five years ago, we had nothing. It’s a good step forward. There’s a lot that needs to be in place to open a centre. They must be linked to other hospital services, there needs to be an HIV clinic and counselling as well.’ As regards the reporting process, the centres support survivors in a way that is sensitive to the extreme stress they are experiencing, and the impact it has on the ability to process information and form memories. Victims are filmed telling their stories and can decide later on if they want to press charges or not.   Heleen believes filming is vital to avoid retraumatisation: ‘It minimises how many times questions are asked, which reduces the emotional burden of the process.’ For Julia, it gives rape survivors a sense of control: ‘You get lost in the legal system with no idea what to expect and that’s scary, especially when the control has already been taken from you. When you have to repeat your story, it’s normal that it changes, and this can be used against you. Filming limits victim-blaming and puts them in a more powerful position.’

Image red umbrella
story

| 20 December 2023

Supporting the health and safety of sex workers in Portugal

Providing healthcare and support to the sex worker community has been part of the work of APF, IPPF's Portuguese member, for over 20 years. The organisation’s northern regional delegation, APF Norte, has been operating Espaço Pessoa – a service providing care to sex workers and people who use drugs - in Porto since 1997. We spoke to Alexandra Ramos and Jorge Martins from APF Norte about Espaço Pessoa’s work. Espaço Pessoa has both a community centre and a street team working on the ground with people who do sex work. In addition to specialised psychology, nursing and social services, the centre’s users have access to changing rooms, clothing, and laundry facilities. Meanwhile, the street team provide sex workers with contraceptive care, information, and advice on STIs, as well as essential screening tests for syphilis, HIV and Hepatitis C, and vaccinations. By listening actively to the concerns and difficulties of the communities they support, they are able to build trust, to talk to people about their social rights, provide crucial psychosocial support and make referrals to more formal support services when necessary. Over the last decade, Espaço Pessoa’s team has observed a massive shift from people working on the street to indoor sex work. This is particularly true for trans sex workers, who face multiple layers of stigma and high levels of violence. Alexandra Ramos said, ‘Although when they are inside, sex workers are more protected from the everyday verbal abuse they face on the street, in many ways their vulnerability has increased; there is little to no protection from violent clients when working alone in an apartment.’ Legal framework falls far short of protecting sex workers Sex work is not criminalised within the Penal Code in Portugal. However, the law states that third parties are not permitted to profit from, promote, encourage or facilitate prostitution, which was originally intended to prohibit brothels and pimping. In some cases, this can be problematic for sex workers wishing to work together or in collective settings. Public and political discourse is very much focused on defining women who do sex work as victims, or conflating sex work with trafficking, despite these being two distinct issues. This perpetuates the notion that sex work can never be a choice; the reality is it is still not recognised as work. The Constitutional Court issued a statement in May 2023 in favour of sex workers’ rights, stating that criminalising all third parties without distinguishing between exploitative and non-exploitative ones is unconstitutional. Although this is a welcome move, APF believes that the national legal framework still has a long way to go to support sex workers, and underlines that there is still a lot of social and political division. Language plays a big part, and APF explains that the term sex work, preferred by the people who do the work, affirms the agency of sex workers and helps to destigmatise both the work and those who do it.  Sex workers experience many, often intersecting, systemic inequalities and oppressions, and the criminalisation of aspects of their work exposes them to high levels of violence and rights violations. APF explains that in Portugal, undocumented sex workers are at particular risk because of their lack of access to social rights, together with the current legal context and the social stigma that they face. These factors mean that they rarely report incidents to police for fear of repercussions. Many of those now engaging in sex work are non-nationals, predominantly from Brazil, which means most fall through the cracks. Jorge Martins underlined the difficulty in providing care for those excluded by the system: ‘Undocumented people face the greatest difficulties in accessing social and healthcare services. Unfortunately, referral becomes very difficult, which places them in increasingly marginalised, hidden and helpless spaces.’ At least, according to APF, migrant sex workers are rarely targeted by law enforcement and a service providing some healthcare for sex workers is provided within Portugal’s national healthcare system, although access becomes much more complicated in cases where coordination and referral to other services is required.   Adapting to the changing needs of sex working people Sex workers are some of the most marginalised and socially stigmatised groups in Portugal. The transient nature of their work means some lead extremely solitary lives. Alexandra said: “People are socially isolated, and many of them move from city to city, and room to room, without creating any links outside of the local bus station or airport. Opportunities to establish social support networks are increasingly few, particularly outside of the sex work circuit. Homelessness has also become an increasingly big problem with rent hikes making access to housing a massive barrier.” In response to changing needs, APF Norte has considerably increased the number of shifts of its street team, and initial contact is typically made through consulting sex workers’ adverts online.  Through their continuous presence, they have established a good level of trust with the sex worker community. Crucial to that is the presence in their team of a peer educator who has firsthand experience of sex work and is therefore able to play the role of trusted mediator with some members of the community, working in close collaboration with the technical team. APF’s approach has enabled it to support people with interventions that go beyond the delivery of contraceptives. Empowerment and education are key to eradicating stigma Espaço Pessoa tends to reach sex workers who have no other support system, so their outreach places a great deal of emphasis on empowerment. Sex workers navigate legally precarious territory, which means many have internalised stigma. Ingrained perceptions make some more likely to accept being subjected to sexual and physical violence, and/or non-consensual sexual practices. The Espaço Pessoa team works to build awareness of these issues amongst sex workers by educating them on their human rights, teaching them to recognise harmful behaviour, as well as deconstructing the myths and underlying prejudices surrounding sex work, always with a commitment to supporting the needs and autonomy of each person they reach. *** Read more about IPPF’s global policy position on sex work, which strongly supports decriminalisation of all aspects of sex work, together with social policies that address structural inequalities, as the only way to protect the health, safety and lives of those who do sex work.  Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash  

Image red umbrella
story

| 20 December 2023

Supporting the health and safety of sex workers in Portugal

Providing healthcare and support to the sex worker community has been part of the work of APF, IPPF's Portuguese member, for over 20 years. The organisation’s northern regional delegation, APF Norte, has been operating Espaço Pessoa – a service providing care to sex workers and people who use drugs - in Porto since 1997. We spoke to Alexandra Ramos and Jorge Martins from APF Norte about Espaço Pessoa’s work. Espaço Pessoa has both a community centre and a street team working on the ground with people who do sex work. In addition to specialised psychology, nursing and social services, the centre’s users have access to changing rooms, clothing, and laundry facilities. Meanwhile, the street team provide sex workers with contraceptive care, information, and advice on STIs, as well as essential screening tests for syphilis, HIV and Hepatitis C, and vaccinations. By listening actively to the concerns and difficulties of the communities they support, they are able to build trust, to talk to people about their social rights, provide crucial psychosocial support and make referrals to more formal support services when necessary. Over the last decade, Espaço Pessoa’s team has observed a massive shift from people working on the street to indoor sex work. This is particularly true for trans sex workers, who face multiple layers of stigma and high levels of violence. Alexandra Ramos said, ‘Although when they are inside, sex workers are more protected from the everyday verbal abuse they face on the street, in many ways their vulnerability has increased; there is little to no protection from violent clients when working alone in an apartment.’ Legal framework falls far short of protecting sex workers Sex work is not criminalised within the Penal Code in Portugal. However, the law states that third parties are not permitted to profit from, promote, encourage or facilitate prostitution, which was originally intended to prohibit brothels and pimping. In some cases, this can be problematic for sex workers wishing to work together or in collective settings. Public and political discourse is very much focused on defining women who do sex work as victims, or conflating sex work with trafficking, despite these being two distinct issues. This perpetuates the notion that sex work can never be a choice; the reality is it is still not recognised as work. The Constitutional Court issued a statement in May 2023 in favour of sex workers’ rights, stating that criminalising all third parties without distinguishing between exploitative and non-exploitative ones is unconstitutional. Although this is a welcome move, APF believes that the national legal framework still has a long way to go to support sex workers, and underlines that there is still a lot of social and political division. Language plays a big part, and APF explains that the term sex work, preferred by the people who do the work, affirms the agency of sex workers and helps to destigmatise both the work and those who do it.  Sex workers experience many, often intersecting, systemic inequalities and oppressions, and the criminalisation of aspects of their work exposes them to high levels of violence and rights violations. APF explains that in Portugal, undocumented sex workers are at particular risk because of their lack of access to social rights, together with the current legal context and the social stigma that they face. These factors mean that they rarely report incidents to police for fear of repercussions. Many of those now engaging in sex work are non-nationals, predominantly from Brazil, which means most fall through the cracks. Jorge Martins underlined the difficulty in providing care for those excluded by the system: ‘Undocumented people face the greatest difficulties in accessing social and healthcare services. Unfortunately, referral becomes very difficult, which places them in increasingly marginalised, hidden and helpless spaces.’ At least, according to APF, migrant sex workers are rarely targeted by law enforcement and a service providing some healthcare for sex workers is provided within Portugal’s national healthcare system, although access becomes much more complicated in cases where coordination and referral to other services is required.   Adapting to the changing needs of sex working people Sex workers are some of the most marginalised and socially stigmatised groups in Portugal. The transient nature of their work means some lead extremely solitary lives. Alexandra said: “People are socially isolated, and many of them move from city to city, and room to room, without creating any links outside of the local bus station or airport. Opportunities to establish social support networks are increasingly few, particularly outside of the sex work circuit. Homelessness has also become an increasingly big problem with rent hikes making access to housing a massive barrier.” In response to changing needs, APF Norte has considerably increased the number of shifts of its street team, and initial contact is typically made through consulting sex workers’ adverts online.  Through their continuous presence, they have established a good level of trust with the sex worker community. Crucial to that is the presence in their team of a peer educator who has firsthand experience of sex work and is therefore able to play the role of trusted mediator with some members of the community, working in close collaboration with the technical team. APF’s approach has enabled it to support people with interventions that go beyond the delivery of contraceptives. Empowerment and education are key to eradicating stigma Espaço Pessoa tends to reach sex workers who have no other support system, so their outreach places a great deal of emphasis on empowerment. Sex workers navigate legally precarious territory, which means many have internalised stigma. Ingrained perceptions make some more likely to accept being subjected to sexual and physical violence, and/or non-consensual sexual practices. The Espaço Pessoa team works to build awareness of these issues amongst sex workers by educating them on their human rights, teaching them to recognise harmful behaviour, as well as deconstructing the myths and underlying prejudices surrounding sex work, always with a commitment to supporting the needs and autonomy of each person they reach. *** Read more about IPPF’s global policy position on sex work, which strongly supports decriminalisation of all aspects of sex work, together with social policies that address structural inequalities, as the only way to protect the health, safety and lives of those who do sex work.  Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash  

image CSE comic strip
story

| 07 December 2023

Sexuality education keeps young people safe from harm

Comprehensive sexuality and relationship education is a vital prevention tool in the fight against gender-based violence. When we support young people to develop knowledge and skills to navigate issues like consent and gender norms, we empower them to build healthy and respectful relationships, and address the root causes of GBV.       

image CSE comic strip
story

| 10 December 2023

Sexuality education keeps young people safe from harm

Comprehensive sexuality and relationship education is a vital prevention tool in the fight against gender-based violence. When we support young people to develop knowledge and skills to navigate issues like consent and gender norms, we empower them to build healthy and respectful relationships, and address the root causes of GBV.       

Justyna
story

| 06 December 2022

Justyna: ‘I may be sitting alone but I am not alone’

‘They want to leave women alone with their ‘problem,’ says Polish women’s rights defender, Justyna of the ruling ultra-conservative party in Poland.  Justyna, a mother of three, works in an increasingly hostile environment, one in which women’s sexual and reproductive rights (SRHR) are being completely dismantled. Poland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, only permitting abortion when the life or health of the pregnant woman is endangered or in the case of rape or incest. On 22 October 2020, the Polish Court went further and ruled that abortions could no longer happen in cases of foetal illness or abnormality. The only way for women who need a safe abortion is to rely on NGOs and women’s rights defenders, like Justyna, who enable self-administrated abortions; a safe and easy way avoid being forced through a pregnancy.

Justyna
story

| 07 December 2022

Justyna: ‘I may be sitting alone but I am not alone’

‘They want to leave women alone with their ‘problem,’ says Polish women’s rights defender, Justyna of the ruling ultra-conservative party in Poland.  Justyna, a mother of three, works in an increasingly hostile environment, one in which women’s sexual and reproductive rights (SRHR) are being completely dismantled. Poland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, only permitting abortion when the life or health of the pregnant woman is endangered or in the case of rape or incest. On 22 October 2020, the Polish Court went further and ruled that abortions could no longer happen in cases of foetal illness or abnormality. The only way for women who need a safe abortion is to rely on NGOs and women’s rights defenders, like Justyna, who enable self-administrated abortions; a safe and easy way avoid being forced through a pregnancy.

Safe from harm campaign image
story

| 16 November 2022

Anything less than yes is rape: the campaign for a consent-based rape law in Sweden

The absence of a ‘no’ is not an implicit yes. This is the overarching principle of a long-fought Swedish ‘consent law’ aimed at dismantling the ‘no means no’ framework; a system rooted in the idea that a person needed to explicitly resist for it to constitute rape. Women’s rights activist Demet Ergun is hopeful the law, which came into force in 2018, will facilitate understanding of consent but adds dryly that ‘People don’t pay enough attention to the fact that sex should be something done ‘with’ someone, not ‘to’ them.’ As President of the women’s rights coalition Fatta, Demet knows all too well the time-worn path to legislative change. It was Fatta that spearheaded the campaign to reform Swedish rape laws. The movement for change was sparked when the acquittal of three 19-year-old men accused of raping a 15-year-old* girl with a glass bottle in 2013 provoked mass protests. From the ashes of this horrifying rape case, feminist resistance rose up. Fed up with having women’s and girls’ experiences of sexual violence minimised by society and courts of law, the founders of what was to become Fatta began to gather together, collecting women’s stories and raising public awareness, before formally establishing the organisation. Under the new law, rape survivors no longer have to prove there was threat, force, or that they were taken advantage of in a vulnerable situation. The law states that consent can never be freely given by people who are intoxicated, incapacitated, under duress, or in a situation of unequal power dynamics or dependency, such as sex between a teacher and their student. After the law was implemented, Sweden saw rape conviction rates rise by 75% between 2019 and 2020. Four years ago, many of these cases wouldn’t legally have constituted rape; a shocking indictment of just how many survivors of sexual violence have never received justice. Gender-based violence expertise or training is still not required to be a juror in a rape trial, which Demet says must change. Sweden’s consent law also introduced a new, lesser offence of ‘negligent rape’ to make it possible to get justice for survivors in cases where courts found that while the intent to knowingly disregard the victim’s lack of consent could not be proven, the perpetrator had failed to clarify whether or not consent was being given, and therefore should have stopped and asked. The law’s acknowledgment that rape can still happen in the absence of force or threat is important to dismantling the myth that most rape is perpetrated by strangers. It also rejects the notion that prior consent is ‘forever’ consent and includes situations in which the victim ‘freezes’ or is taken by surprise and does not have time to react. Demet explains that the presumption of innocence until proven guilty hasn’t been replaced, but now the court has to decide whether or not consent was given: ‘Previously the victim had to prove that there was a strong indication of resistance. Now the accused has to show they received consent and how this was interpreted. A key difference is that physical evidence is no longer required. This is important because of the 'frozen fight' situation; often people can’t fight off perpetrators or control how their body reacts.’ Opponents of the law argue consent can’t be proven, but sexual violence campaigners insist that it can be expressed clearly either verbally or through nonverbal cues, such as positive body language like smiling, maintaining eye contact, and nodding. We have been taught that sex is about setting a silent ambiance and that talking can ‘break the mood’. However, questions can facilitate a positive sexual experience in myriad ways from creating comfort to establishing intimacy.

Safe from harm campaign image
story

| 24 November 2022

Anything less than yes is rape: the campaign for a consent-based rape law in Sweden

The absence of a ‘no’ is not an implicit yes. This is the overarching principle of a long-fought Swedish ‘consent law’ aimed at dismantling the ‘no means no’ framework; a system rooted in the idea that a person needed to explicitly resist for it to constitute rape. Women’s rights activist Demet Ergun is hopeful the law, which came into force in 2018, will facilitate understanding of consent but adds dryly that ‘People don’t pay enough attention to the fact that sex should be something done ‘with’ someone, not ‘to’ them.’ As President of the women’s rights coalition Fatta, Demet knows all too well the time-worn path to legislative change. It was Fatta that spearheaded the campaign to reform Swedish rape laws. The movement for change was sparked when the acquittal of three 19-year-old men accused of raping a 15-year-old* girl with a glass bottle in 2013 provoked mass protests. From the ashes of this horrifying rape case, feminist resistance rose up. Fed up with having women’s and girls’ experiences of sexual violence minimised by society and courts of law, the founders of what was to become Fatta began to gather together, collecting women’s stories and raising public awareness, before formally establishing the organisation. Under the new law, rape survivors no longer have to prove there was threat, force, or that they were taken advantage of in a vulnerable situation. The law states that consent can never be freely given by people who are intoxicated, incapacitated, under duress, or in a situation of unequal power dynamics or dependency, such as sex between a teacher and their student. After the law was implemented, Sweden saw rape conviction rates rise by 75% between 2019 and 2020. Four years ago, many of these cases wouldn’t legally have constituted rape; a shocking indictment of just how many survivors of sexual violence have never received justice. Gender-based violence expertise or training is still not required to be a juror in a rape trial, which Demet says must change. Sweden’s consent law also introduced a new, lesser offence of ‘negligent rape’ to make it possible to get justice for survivors in cases where courts found that while the intent to knowingly disregard the victim’s lack of consent could not be proven, the perpetrator had failed to clarify whether or not consent was being given, and therefore should have stopped and asked. The law’s acknowledgment that rape can still happen in the absence of force or threat is important to dismantling the myth that most rape is perpetrated by strangers. It also rejects the notion that prior consent is ‘forever’ consent and includes situations in which the victim ‘freezes’ or is taken by surprise and does not have time to react. Demet explains that the presumption of innocence until proven guilty hasn’t been replaced, but now the court has to decide whether or not consent was given: ‘Previously the victim had to prove that there was a strong indication of resistance. Now the accused has to show they received consent and how this was interpreted. A key difference is that physical evidence is no longer required. This is important because of the 'frozen fight' situation; often people can’t fight off perpetrators or control how their body reacts.’ Opponents of the law argue consent can’t be proven, but sexual violence campaigners insist that it can be expressed clearly either verbally or through nonverbal cues, such as positive body language like smiling, maintaining eye contact, and nodding. We have been taught that sex is about setting a silent ambiance and that talking can ‘break the mood’. However, questions can facilitate a positive sexual experience in myriad ways from creating comfort to establishing intimacy.

Spanish protests on sexual violence
story

| 16 November 2022

Legislating the path to consent: Spain's Yes Means Yes law

‘Everyone has the right to live without violence. You can have sex without love, but always with care’. This is the message Filomena Ruggiero wants people to take away. For her, broadening the concept of violence and placing the focus on ‘yes’ contributes to a better understanding about sex as an encounter that is wanted and not one of obligation. A long-time women’s rights champion, Filomena, who is policy adviser and advocacy lead at SEDRA-Spanish Federation for Family Planning (SEDRA-FPFE), says the collective trauma resulting from a shocking rape case in 2016 was the catalyst for change and provoked a wave of feminist action across the country. Spain’s ‘yes means yes’ consent law, which came into effect in October 2022, was sparked by the acquittal of five men who raped an 18-year-old woman during the 2016 Pamplona bull-running festival. Dubbed ‘the wolf pack’ case, there was widespread outrage after the court argued footage showing the woman motionless with her eyes closed, was proof of consent. Again, four years after the rape in Pamplona, a group of men who gang raped a 14-year-old girl in Catalonia were convicted of the lesser charge of sexual abuse, this time because the victim was intoxicated. Both cases highlighted the abject inadequacy of Spanish rape legislation, which previously stated violence or coercion had to be present for it to be considered rape. Relics of a patriarchal system, previous rape laws in Spain were steeped in sexist assumptions about consent and so-called ‘acceptable’ behaviour. Cases so often hinged on the behaviour of the victim, as if this had somehow contributed to or excused rape. What the survivor was wearing, drinking or doing at the time was put under the spotlight, and not the actions of the accused.  The legal changes mean victims will no longer have to provide proof of violence or threat of violence, coercion or resistance against their attacker(s) in court. Plying someone with drugs or alcohol to coerce them into sex is a criminal offence, and digital violence, such as threats or non-consensual sharing of images, has also been criminalised. The new law maintains the presumption that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. But going forward it is the defendant who will have to prove there was consent and the victim will have to prove there was no consent. The law also aims to avoid secondary victimisation that results when institutions and individuals acting on their behalf, for example lawyers, the judiciary and the public prosecutor’s office, seek to discredit the victim by asking unnecessary and intrusive questions about her private life that are rooted in gender stereotypes and prejudices. An alliance of feminist organisations, which included SEDRA-FPFE, played an integral part in drafting the new law. They ensured the introduction of 50 crisis centres and 24-hour support for victims, as well as financial support. But Filomena says the issue now lies in resources. The national law needs to be implemented at the regional level, which means its application will be unequal. Nevertheless, the law reform sends a very clear message: nobody is entitled to your body, and consent is never given through coercion, intimidation, violence or incapacitation. Consent must now be freely given and expressed. If it is not, this is rape. Encouraging men to step up Street harassment – the provocative comments, whistling or gestures women are so often subjected to – is now also a criminal offence. This marks a paradigm shift to seeing sexual harassment as an issue of social justice. Despite this, the public outcry has galvanised the extreme right who view the reform as a threat to their regressive anti-feminist agenda. Opponents of the new law claim street harassment is part of Latin culture and something to be celebrated. Filomena rebuffs this arguing it defines women as sexual objects: ‘Catcalling is often viewed by men as something positive in Spain but the comments are of a sexual nature, which provokes insecurity and fear. It can limit women’s freedom in their choice of clothing, how they act or behave.’ Filomena believes men need to do more to end violence: ‘Social norms don’t change through laws alone but are constructed through a long cultural process. Boys and men are also victims of macho social norms. We must encourage men to stop other men from doing this and raise awareness.’ Filomena is adamant the role of men as peer educators is fundamental to the law: ‘We need to have a reflection in society on gender roles, and we cannot let macho groups distort and weaponize the debate. There is a lot of misinformation around the legislation. Male influencers should tackle this by speaking out about how this is really about putting desire at the centre, about sex being wanted and enjoyed. This would contribute to a better understanding of the law and of its consequences, which are very positive for men.’  

Spanish protests on sexual violence
story

| 24 November 2022

Legislating the path to consent: Spain's Yes Means Yes law

‘Everyone has the right to live without violence. You can have sex without love, but always with care’. This is the message Filomena Ruggiero wants people to take away. For her, broadening the concept of violence and placing the focus on ‘yes’ contributes to a better understanding about sex as an encounter that is wanted and not one of obligation. A long-time women’s rights champion, Filomena, who is policy adviser and advocacy lead at SEDRA-Spanish Federation for Family Planning (SEDRA-FPFE), says the collective trauma resulting from a shocking rape case in 2016 was the catalyst for change and provoked a wave of feminist action across the country. Spain’s ‘yes means yes’ consent law, which came into effect in October 2022, was sparked by the acquittal of five men who raped an 18-year-old woman during the 2016 Pamplona bull-running festival. Dubbed ‘the wolf pack’ case, there was widespread outrage after the court argued footage showing the woman motionless with her eyes closed, was proof of consent. Again, four years after the rape in Pamplona, a group of men who gang raped a 14-year-old girl in Catalonia were convicted of the lesser charge of sexual abuse, this time because the victim was intoxicated. Both cases highlighted the abject inadequacy of Spanish rape legislation, which previously stated violence or coercion had to be present for it to be considered rape. Relics of a patriarchal system, previous rape laws in Spain were steeped in sexist assumptions about consent and so-called ‘acceptable’ behaviour. Cases so often hinged on the behaviour of the victim, as if this had somehow contributed to or excused rape. What the survivor was wearing, drinking or doing at the time was put under the spotlight, and not the actions of the accused.  The legal changes mean victims will no longer have to provide proof of violence or threat of violence, coercion or resistance against their attacker(s) in court. Plying someone with drugs or alcohol to coerce them into sex is a criminal offence, and digital violence, such as threats or non-consensual sharing of images, has also been criminalised. The new law maintains the presumption that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. But going forward it is the defendant who will have to prove there was consent and the victim will have to prove there was no consent. The law also aims to avoid secondary victimisation that results when institutions and individuals acting on their behalf, for example lawyers, the judiciary and the public prosecutor’s office, seek to discredit the victim by asking unnecessary and intrusive questions about her private life that are rooted in gender stereotypes and prejudices. An alliance of feminist organisations, which included SEDRA-FPFE, played an integral part in drafting the new law. They ensured the introduction of 50 crisis centres and 24-hour support for victims, as well as financial support. But Filomena says the issue now lies in resources. The national law needs to be implemented at the regional level, which means its application will be unequal. Nevertheless, the law reform sends a very clear message: nobody is entitled to your body, and consent is never given through coercion, intimidation, violence or incapacitation. Consent must now be freely given and expressed. If it is not, this is rape. Encouraging men to step up Street harassment – the provocative comments, whistling or gestures women are so often subjected to – is now also a criminal offence. This marks a paradigm shift to seeing sexual harassment as an issue of social justice. Despite this, the public outcry has galvanised the extreme right who view the reform as a threat to their regressive anti-feminist agenda. Opponents of the new law claim street harassment is part of Latin culture and something to be celebrated. Filomena rebuffs this arguing it defines women as sexual objects: ‘Catcalling is often viewed by men as something positive in Spain but the comments are of a sexual nature, which provokes insecurity and fear. It can limit women’s freedom in their choice of clothing, how they act or behave.’ Filomena believes men need to do more to end violence: ‘Social norms don’t change through laws alone but are constructed through a long cultural process. Boys and men are also victims of macho social norms. We must encourage men to stop other men from doing this and raise awareness.’ Filomena is adamant the role of men as peer educators is fundamental to the law: ‘We need to have a reflection in society on gender roles, and we cannot let macho groups distort and weaponize the debate. There is a lot of misinformation around the legislation. Male influencers should tackle this by speaking out about how this is really about putting desire at the centre, about sex being wanted and enjoyed. This would contribute to a better understanding of the law and of its consequences, which are very positive for men.’  

Safe from harm campaign image
story

| 16 November 2022

Belgium’s consent law is clear: Absence of no doesn’t mean yes

‘Rape isn’t always something that happens when you are dragged into an alleyway’, says Heleen Heysse, Policy Officer at Sensoa, the Flemish centre of expertise on sexual health. ‘The subtle ways in which coercion can take place, as well as the many ways consent can be freely given, is within this law. It recognises people’s experiences and their trauma’. Heleen says the consent law which came into effect in June 2022 in Belgium is a victory for survivors and campaigners. The legislation unequivocally states: non-consensual sex is rape. Rape cases will now no longer hinge on whether a survivor said ‘no’ or fought back. Instead, it is an offence when consent is lacking, withdrawn or when advantage is taken of a victim’s vulnerable state. The consent-based definition also applies to other forms of sexual violence.   Sensoa has been at the forefront of campaigning for reform of the outdated sexual criminal law for many years. They say that within the new law, the absence of struggle or reaction can no longer be taken as implicit consent as it takes into account the freeze response – when a person is unable to react. Heleen stresses the presumption of innocence until proven guilty remains one of the core tenets of the Belgian justice system and investigations are just as rigorous. This, she says, contradicts the myth spread by opponents of consent-based legislation that women will use the law to falsely report rape; complaints of which are grossly overestimated. Previously, an assault could only be legally considered rape if coercion, physical force or verbal threats took place, or a person was unable to defend themselves. Like in many countries across the EU, rape victims had to prove that there had been violence or that they had explicitly said ‘no.’ Alongside this law, Belgium has also become the first country in Europe to decriminalise sex work, which Heleen and her colleague Julia Day say makes it easier for sex workers to report sexual violence. Training prevents victim blaming Up to 90% of rape cases in Belgium go unreported and only 4% of people file a complaint with the police. Julia and Heleen say this is due to the hurdles survivors face when reporting sexual violence, not to mention the trauma associated with interrogations and pervasive victim blaming. Julia says adequate training is essential: ‘It’s important police know and understand the law so when conducting an interview, they have guidelines on questioning to establish whether the victim consented freely.’ Reporting a rape is a big ordeal. Victims of sexual violence often blame themselves and are afraid they won’t be believed. Even under the new law, in Belgium, when someone reports a rape to the police, the legal process is kickstarted immediately. This can discourage people from reporting sexual crimes. Fortunately, the introduction of Sexual Assault Centres has vastly reduced reporting obstacles; 68% of survivors who came to a centre went on to file a complaint, significantly higher than the national average. This is largely because the support offered at the centres is focused on providing confidential care to survivors and helping them to rebuild their lives; it includes forensic analysis, trauma care, specially trained inspectors, psychologists and case managers in one place. It also enables marginalised groups, such as transgender people and sex workers to report rape in a safer environment. Currently, there are seven centres across Belgium and Julia says they hope to have one in every province: ‘Five years ago, we had nothing. It’s a good step forward. There’s a lot that needs to be in place to open a centre. They must be linked to other hospital services, there needs to be an HIV clinic and counselling as well.’ As regards the reporting process, the centres support survivors in a way that is sensitive to the extreme stress they are experiencing, and the impact it has on the ability to process information and form memories. Victims are filmed telling their stories and can decide later on if they want to press charges or not.   Heleen believes filming is vital to avoid retraumatisation: ‘It minimises how many times questions are asked, which reduces the emotional burden of the process.’ For Julia, it gives rape survivors a sense of control: ‘You get lost in the legal system with no idea what to expect and that’s scary, especially when the control has already been taken from you. When you have to repeat your story, it’s normal that it changes, and this can be used against you. Filming limits victim-blaming and puts them in a more powerful position.’

Safe from harm campaign image
story

| 24 November 2022

Belgium’s consent law is clear: Absence of no doesn’t mean yes

‘Rape isn’t always something that happens when you are dragged into an alleyway’, says Heleen Heysse, Policy Officer at Sensoa, the Flemish centre of expertise on sexual health. ‘The subtle ways in which coercion can take place, as well as the many ways consent can be freely given, is within this law. It recognises people’s experiences and their trauma’. Heleen says the consent law which came into effect in June 2022 in Belgium is a victory for survivors and campaigners. The legislation unequivocally states: non-consensual sex is rape. Rape cases will now no longer hinge on whether a survivor said ‘no’ or fought back. Instead, it is an offence when consent is lacking, withdrawn or when advantage is taken of a victim’s vulnerable state. The consent-based definition also applies to other forms of sexual violence.   Sensoa has been at the forefront of campaigning for reform of the outdated sexual criminal law for many years. They say that within the new law, the absence of struggle or reaction can no longer be taken as implicit consent as it takes into account the freeze response – when a person is unable to react. Heleen stresses the presumption of innocence until proven guilty remains one of the core tenets of the Belgian justice system and investigations are just as rigorous. This, she says, contradicts the myth spread by opponents of consent-based legislation that women will use the law to falsely report rape; complaints of which are grossly overestimated. Previously, an assault could only be legally considered rape if coercion, physical force or verbal threats took place, or a person was unable to defend themselves. Like in many countries across the EU, rape victims had to prove that there had been violence or that they had explicitly said ‘no.’ Alongside this law, Belgium has also become the first country in Europe to decriminalise sex work, which Heleen and her colleague Julia Day say makes it easier for sex workers to report sexual violence. Training prevents victim blaming Up to 90% of rape cases in Belgium go unreported and only 4% of people file a complaint with the police. Julia and Heleen say this is due to the hurdles survivors face when reporting sexual violence, not to mention the trauma associated with interrogations and pervasive victim blaming. Julia says adequate training is essential: ‘It’s important police know and understand the law so when conducting an interview, they have guidelines on questioning to establish whether the victim consented freely.’ Reporting a rape is a big ordeal. Victims of sexual violence often blame themselves and are afraid they won’t be believed. Even under the new law, in Belgium, when someone reports a rape to the police, the legal process is kickstarted immediately. This can discourage people from reporting sexual crimes. Fortunately, the introduction of Sexual Assault Centres has vastly reduced reporting obstacles; 68% of survivors who came to a centre went on to file a complaint, significantly higher than the national average. This is largely because the support offered at the centres is focused on providing confidential care to survivors and helping them to rebuild their lives; it includes forensic analysis, trauma care, specially trained inspectors, psychologists and case managers in one place. It also enables marginalised groups, such as transgender people and sex workers to report rape in a safer environment. Currently, there are seven centres across Belgium and Julia says they hope to have one in every province: ‘Five years ago, we had nothing. It’s a good step forward. There’s a lot that needs to be in place to open a centre. They must be linked to other hospital services, there needs to be an HIV clinic and counselling as well.’ As regards the reporting process, the centres support survivors in a way that is sensitive to the extreme stress they are experiencing, and the impact it has on the ability to process information and form memories. Victims are filmed telling their stories and can decide later on if they want to press charges or not.   Heleen believes filming is vital to avoid retraumatisation: ‘It minimises how many times questions are asked, which reduces the emotional burden of the process.’ For Julia, it gives rape survivors a sense of control: ‘You get lost in the legal system with no idea what to expect and that’s scary, especially when the control has already been taken from you. When you have to repeat your story, it’s normal that it changes, and this can be used against you. Filming limits victim-blaming and puts them in a more powerful position.’