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Federal ministers take immediate measures to combat sexual assault

16:59 21/10/2021

The federal ministers of justice and the interior, together with the state secretary for equal rights, held emergency meetings this week in response to testimonies from women who have been sexually assaulted by bar staff in Brussels.

The meetings follow a tumultuous week in which more than 1,000 protestors took to the streets after the claim that an Ixelles barman has been drugging and raping female customers for the last six years. Some 17 allegations have been made against the bartender, who worked at two different bars, during that time.

“When I came to, I was only wearing a T-shirt,” wrote one victim on social media. “There was a condom wrapper on the ground, and the door of my apartment was standing open. It was the worst day of my entire life.”

#balance_ton_bar

Many other women have said that they passed out suddenly at the bars in question, but were with friends and so managed to get home safely. Another woman who worked in a bar in the nightlife hotspot near the Ixelles cemetery said she suffered regular sexual intimidation from her boss, who also eventually tried to drug her.

Other victims have appeared in the media telling of similar experiences in bars and clubs – including groping and verbal harassment – in other parts of Brussels. Women are taking to the new Instagram account #balance_ton_bar to report in which bars they have been victimised.

The protest at the weekend saw demonstrators demanding that charges of sexual assault be taken more seriously by the police and the justice system.

‘Dark figure’

The meetings among the political cabinets were “very constructive”, said equal opportunities state secretary Sarah Schlitz. While a national policy focused on combatting sexual violence is in the works, Schlitz, justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne and interior minister Annelies Verlinden agree that immediate measures need to be taken.

Specifically, the authorities will implement a more efficient system to collect evidence in sexual assault cases, launch a campaign to promote the services of clinics for victims of sexual violence (in Brussels, Ghent and Liège) and develop a digital platform where women can report where and when they were assaulted.

“There is a significant difference between the number of testimonials published on the internet in recent days and the figures provided by police and the clinics,” said Schlitz. “These discrepancies show the ‘dark figure’ of sexual violence in our country. Minister Quickenborne, minister Verlinden and I are going to join forces to arrive at an integrated approach in which every stakeholder is properly involved.”

Two more sexual assault clinics are due to open next month – in Antwerp and in Charleroi. A reform of the criminal code is also in the works, with specific references to consent and a broader definition of rape.

Photo: Waff on Chaussée de Boondael is one of the two bars in the eye of the storm this week

Written by Lisa Bradshaw