Germany Takes Steps To Guard Women Against Sexual Assault As They Ring In New Year

Dec 31, 2017
Originally published on January 1, 2018 7:43 pm

Thousands of party-goers are expected to see in the New Year at Berlin's iconic Brandenburg Gate where an official party and firework display are planned. As usual, security will be tight with road blocks and an increased police presence of some 1, 600 officers. But this year, female revelers attending the open air event will also be able to access a women-only safety zone staffed by the German Red Cross.

The measures are being introduced by the police for the first time in Berlin because of concerns about sexual assaults.

Anja Marx, spokesperson for the organizers of the Berlin event, says a similar set-up worked very well at Oktoberfest in Munich this year, adding that psychologists would also be available in the safety zone.

Two years ago, hundreds of women in the city of Cologne reported being attacked and robbed by gangs of men while out celebrating New Year's Eve on the square in front of the famous cathedral.

Police targeted migrants after many of the victims described the perpetrators as looking North African or Middle Eastern.

Although hardly any prosecutions were ever made, fears soon spread about the large number of refugees and migrants who had arrived in Germany in 2015. While many Germans initially supported Angela Merkel's decision to allow asylum-seekers to come straight to Germany, the attacks on New Year's Eve in Cologne and, on a smaller scale, in other German cities, heralded a change in public mood.

Consequently, Merkel's conservative bloc lost more than a million voters to the anti-Islam, populist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) in the September election. The AfD is the first right-wing party to enter the Bundestag in more than half a century.

The issue of migration continues to cause tensions as Merkel struggles to build a coalition government.

Following the collapse in talks with the Green party and the libertarian Free Democrats, Merkel's former coalition partner, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), have agreed to start negotiations next week.

But immigration will prove a major hurdle. The SPD are against Merkel's conservative bloc's proposal to introduce an annual upper limit on asylum-seekers. Both the SPD and Merkel's Christian Democrats worry that a repeat of attacks on the scale of those that happened in Cologne two years ago could politically benefit the right-wing AfD party. Nonetheless, the move to set up a safety zone for female party-goers in Berlin is not welcomed by all, even from within Merkel's own party.

Antonia Niecke, chairperson of the Christian Democrats' youth wing in Hamburg, argues that safety zones for women assume that sexual assault is a given and, knowing that, questions how women can really be expected to enjoy New Year's celebrations.

Criticism has also come from the German police, despite the fact that the safety zone has been set up by the capital's own police force. Rainer Wendt, head of Germany's police union, told a regional paper on Saturday that the apparent need for safety zones implies that public space is unsafe, indicating "the end of equality, freedom of movement and freedom of choice." Wendt says women should feel safe everywhere.

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In Germany this New Year's Eve, authorities have taken extra precautions at outdoor celebrations to prevent sexual harassment. In Berlin, organizers of the main party have taken the unusual and, as it turns out, controversial step of creating a women-only zone. This comes after widespread groping and sexual assaults occurred at festivities in Cologne two years ago.

We talked to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson before the New Year's festivities began. And she told us how Berlin is preparing.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: At the Brandenburg Gate, you're going to have musical performances, and you're going to have fireworks. And so the police will be creating a perimeter there to make sure that the tens of thousands of people are safe. There will be no big backpacks allowed, no alcohol. There's going to be very strict controls there. And this is something that they've instituted because of fears of terrorist attacks.

But what is new this year is what you mentioned, which is that there's a safety zone for women who've been harassed or assaulted and are looking to escape the crowds. This will be staffed by the German Red Cross, and there will also be psychologists on hand. Berlin hasn't really had these sorts of sexual harassment or assault problems that have been reported. And this safety area is actually generating a lot of criticism.

SUAREZ: Well, it seems pretty straightforward. If, in a large crowd, there are women who are concerned about this kind of maltreatment, what's the problem with having a safety zone on a night like that?

NELSON: Well, there's a lot of concern that this creates the wrong image. The most prominent critic is the head of the German police union, Rainer Wendt. And he told a local newspaper that safety zones make it look like outdoor celebrations are dangerous and that police can't protect people.

And then you have other critics who say that this is great in terms of providing help to victims. But where are the extra steps to apprehend the criminals? Even here in Berlin - which, you know, I mentioned, there's very strict security in that one area - the rest of the city turns into a pseudo-war zone, if you will, with illegal fireworks that police do very little about.

So in Cologne two years ago, it was the same story. There just wasn't enough protection.

SUAREZ: Remind us of what happened in Cologne the year before last.

NELSON: In the square that's between the Cologne Cathedral, which is very famous, and the train station, they were having a New Year's Eve outdoor celebration, like many cities do. And mobs of men started to attack women.

There ended up being 1,200 complaints of theft, of groping - or worse, cases of sexual assaults. And the people who were being accused were largely described as African- and Arab-looking. So we're talking about, potentially, migrants or refugees.

In the end, there were very few convictions. In the summer of 2016, I think there were two people that were convicted. And they received probationary sentences for the sexual assault. But the situation did create a no-means-no law, which ended up being passed by the German Parliament in 2016, as well as a revision of police procedure.

SUAREZ: There will be outdoor festivities for the new year in other German cities. Are they pretty much following the Berlin model?

NELSON: Well, they certainly will be having more police on hand, and you're going to see barricades to try and prevent any sort of terror attacks. Again, the focus has been more on terror attacks than on sexual harassment or sexual assault.

But even with the extra police, we're talking about only a fraction of the number that are actually on duty in Germany. You're not going to see a whole lot more out there, just because Germany has pretty strict labor laws. So we'll have to see if that's enough.

SUAREZ: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. She joined us from Berlin. Thanks and happy new year.

NELSON: Happy new year to you, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.