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Cologne assaults show how women still fight to be heard

A recent series of offences against women shows authorities still slow to listen.

Cologne has caught the world's attention with breathless headlines that a thousand men roamed the German city sexually assaulting and robbing women on New Year's Eve. But as a hundred complaints began reaching police stations, with one woman reporting she was turned away because they were too busy, the police filed a report saying the night had "passed off peacefully". 

It was women who went public with their story some days later, with many media outlets ignoring the incidents, eventually forcing an apology from national broadcaster ZDF.

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Germans react to mass attacks on women in Cologne

Police say about 60 women reported being robbed, threatened or sexually molested at New Year celebrations in the western city of Cologne.

Even as the news broke, the preferred angle wasn't about sexual assault but refugee intake, given the attackers were described as African or Arab in appearance. Meanwhile, women were told to travel in pairs. 

It's another case of women being spoken to but rarely heard when it comes to assault. 

Closer to home, in NSW, Ashlee Savins posed for horrific photos, her face bloody, lips swollen and teeth chipped, allegedly the work of her physically abusive boyfriend. The police informed Savins they weren't going to charge her boyfriend, who had posted messages admitting guilt, because they lacked "substantial evidence".

Angered by this response, Savins' housemate posted the photos on Facebook: "My housemate was assaulted on Friday night by her boyfriend resulting in a broken nose and chipped front teeth. Despite calling you the night of the attack, making statements and the medical reports on top of his messages admitting his guilt, she has been told nothing can be done because nobody witnessed it. Great job guys!! This is why women are failing to report and even dying due to domestic violence."

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In Victoria a woman shared footage of a cab driver sexually harassing her by asking to touch or take photos of her and rounding out the five-star professional service by indicating he was off to pleasure himself while thinking about her.

As the news was shared around social media, other women told of similar encounters, some of which escalated into stalking or attempted assaults. These stories aren't new — listen to most woman you discover it's a common experience with cab drivers. 

This was also widely shared when the Victorian Taxi Association launched its abortive #yourtaxis social media campaign. Again, more women came forward with their experiences of harassment and abuse, but also many stories claiming little had been done little to act on these offences. In the case of Cologne, it's understandable why the incident is newsworthy. More than 100 victims with an estimated 1000 attackers, all in one night. Described as "a new dimension in crime", that it took four days until the media began reporting beggars belief. 

And yet the two Australian stories received attention – not because they were "new dimensions in crime"; in fact, they are so common as to be almost statistically universal to women. In comparison, these events are so common, logic dictates they aren't worth reporting. 

But Savin and the woman in the taxi are newsworthy for a reason: not for the events but because these women have footage. They have found themselves newsworthy because their footage scuttles the normal silencing tactics that arise when women show how their world is not safe. 

The refusal to listen to women has been woven into society like a toxic blanket to smother noise. Tell your social circle about harassment or abuse and it's either dismissed with a sighed, "well, what can you do?" or "we don't know all the facts of the story". 

The footage of the lecherous cabbie brought forward racist commentary blaming it all on the aggressor's ethnicity, as though no white person has ever harassed or abused a person. 

Trusted structures also offer little response or protection –  according to a 2006 report, only 15 per cent were charged with sexual assault from 850 cases reported to police (Statewide Steering Committee to Reduce Sexual Assault). Even though multiple reports place false accusations at 2 per cent, a higher percentage of complaints never make it to court, let alone are reported to the police – itself under scrutiny over its failure to listen to women complaining of persistent workplace sexual harassment. 

Those who make it to court still face similar odds, often rebuffed in the court's waiting rooms. One victim of domestic violence ready to give her testimony was told by a DPP official that charges stemming from her abuse were dropped – "it's one word against another", it's "too hard to prove" and that it was in the victim's "best interest". It's a common refrain when harassment or attacks don't fit the classical but statistically unlikely scenarios of a stranger attacking a white, able-bodied woman. Again, abuse is only newsworthy when it's caught on camera.

Women able to secure convictions against attackers are still likely to see sentencing fail them and society – the man with a long criminal history of violence against women escalating to murder is almost cliched, it has happened so often. 

When society and its supporting structures repeat that a woman's voice is not heard or acted upon, it has an impact. It places them as secondary to others. We now trust an inanimate recording device over a woman's word – that's what is truly newsworthy. 

Amy Gray is a writer and broadcaster.

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