Europe’s legal shortfalls on violence against women
Our society has long been deeply rooted in patriarchal structures. Violence against women (VAW) is extremely widespread and affects women everywhere – European women are no exception.
VAW constitutes a violation of women’s right to life, physical and psychological integrity, and a life without violence.
Specifically, it negatively affects women’s immediate and long-term physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health. Sadly, far too often, it can even lead to murder, also known as femicide.
The current situation in the EU
Despite progress on women’s rights in a number of EU member states, VAW remains a major problem in every single country. To give a couple of examples, one in three women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence, and more than 70% of professional women have experienced sexual harassment at the workplace.
In France, for example, a woman is murdered by her partner or ex every two days; in Germany, a woman is a victim of domestic violence every hour; and a woman is raped every five hours in Spain. Only about 150 of the 5,000 rapes that occur in Greece every year are certified by a medical examiner.
Unfortunately, these numbers only show part of the whole picture, as VAW is systematically under-reported. Indeed, the majority of women survivors of intimate partner violence or sexual violence do not seek any help or services. This can be attributed to a number of factors: from rape culture to the stigmatisation of victims, shame, fear, re-victimisation by judicial systems, and misinformation about their rights and services.
Moreover, austerity – namely the privatisation of public services – has put women in an even more vulnerable situation. This is particularly relevant for those who are oppressed or discriminated against for other reasons, migrant women, for example, or women living in poverty. Furthermore, girls and young women, those in ethnic and other minorities, refugees, trans women, trafficked women and women with disabilities suffer from a higher risk of violence, albeit in different forms.
The current pandemic has also exposed the insufficiency of women’s protection from male violence, as shown by a spike in VAW incidents since the first confinement.
Additionally, VAW in the sex industry remains not only accepted but even encouraged and remains legal in a number of EU countries. Indeed, many women exploited in prostitution suffer from acute and chronic PTSD comparable to torture victims. Another worrying statistic is that some 88% of popular porn videos ‘glorify’ VAW. Besides, both of them have been strictly linked to the increase of human trafficking in the EU, most of whose victims are women and girls.
The lack of a harmonised system to collect data at the EU level, and the different legal definitions behind terms that describe violence – including femicide, rape and sexual harassment – compromise our understanding of this issue. As it was not legally-binding, much of the last Strategic Engagement for Gender Equality (2016-2019) was watered down, for example.
In this context, although the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights & Gender Equality has highlighted the need for a binding instrument, the upcoming Gender Equality Strategy will not be the answer. While NGOs have pressured the Parliament to increase the budget on gender equality – sadly blocked by the EU Council – many are calling on the EU to accede to the Istanbul Convention and pressure the likes of Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia and Slovakia into ratifying it.
View of the Left
With so many legal loopholes and gaps at the EU level, there needs to be a holistic and legally binding approach to combating VAW. This is the only way for the EU to comply with its own obligation to uphold all citizens’ human rights in the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Article 2 of the TEU.
To end VAW, we need a new generation of people who will understand respect and equality, and this can only be through good, public education. Better legal treatment of VAW is also necessary, as well as greater financial means to help victims, both at national and European levels.