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How tough is Germany's new rape law?

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Juergen Schwarz/AP/File

(Read caption) A flash mob demonstrates against racism and sexism in Cologne, Germany, in the aftermath of a string of New Year's Eve sexual assaults and robberies. The mass attack prompted Germany to adopt tougher laws against sexual assault.

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On Thursday, the German parliament unanimously passed a “no means no” law that expands the definition of rape to any form of non-consensual sexual contact.

The measure has been in the works for years, but was finally passed after mass attacks on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, in which hundreds of women said they were groped, attacked, and robbed. The legislation closes loopholes that made it difficult to punish offenders. Under the previous law, a victim saying “no” was not enough to establish a lack of consent. The new legislation classifies groping as a sex crime as well.

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Some women’s rights advocates say they wished the legislation went further, while conservative lawmakers worried about proving in court that a victim did not give consent. Despite these criticisms, the legislation marks a watershed moment for Germany, where laws on sexual assaults have long lagged behind the rest of Europe.

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"In the past there were cases where women were raped but the perpetrators couldn't be punished," Germany's Minister for Women, Manuela Schwesig, told the Associated Press. 

The new law will consider all forms of non-consent sufficient, including both physical and verbal cues from the victim. The law also recommends longer sentences for crimes committed by large groups. 

In order for an act to constitute rape under the previous law, victims were required to have defended themselves physically. There was no clear definition of consent. The act of saying “no” was not considered sufficient to prove a defendant guilty.

According to the new law, "It shall no longer be required that the offender must forcibly overcome the victim. Rather, it shall be sufficient that the will of the victim is recognized and the perpetrator defies it."

This legislation brings Germany’s laws on sexual assaults in line with those in much of the rest of the developed world. The United Nation’s “Handbook for Legislation on Violence Against Women,” publisheed in 2010, recommended removing any legal requirement that sexual assault be committed by force or violence.

The legal systems in most European and North American countries offer the most the protection for women against violence, according to an analysis published in The Washington Post. In Sweden, for instance, sexual assault receives little tolerance because of a longstanding culture of women’s rights and ongoing public discussions about sexual violence, according to The New York Times. In Germany, by contrast, marital rape was criminalized only in 1997. According to the Post analysis, countries in western Asia, on the whole, offer the fewest protections against sexual violence.

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The new law has been in the works since 2011, but public attitudes reached a tipping point for this change after the mass attacks in Cologne, where almost a thousand women said they were groped, attacked, or robbed. Because assault could only be proven if the victims could prove they physically resisted, few prosecutions resulted from the mass attacks.

Meanwhile, two men were acquitted of drugging and raping German model Gina-Lisa Lohfink, even though a video of the incident shows Ms. Lohfink saying, "Stop it, stop it," and "No."

While the new German law is considered a landmark moment for the country and its rights for women, some women’s rights advocates would have liked it to be stricter.

"Of course it should be 'Yes means Yes,' " activist Kristina Lunz told the BBC. Ms. Lunz was referring to California and New York laws that require explicit consent, which cannot be given if someone is asleep or incapacitated by drugs or alcohol.

The "NeinHeisstNein" (No means No) law "will help increase the number of victims who choose to press charges, lower the number of criminal prosecutions that are shelved, and ensure sexual assaults are properly punished," said Minister Schwesig.