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Gender-Based Violence Against Women Still Evident in the EU

Two years after the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights conducted a survey concerning the levels of gender-based violence in EU member states, what measures have been taken to end violence against women? 

By Amy Melki & Hyebin Yoo

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The European continent, which has historically held some of the leading nations in the world, is still a very powerful actor in the field of world economics and politics. With the rise of the European Union, Europe’s influence on world affairs has only strengthened through the alliance of 28 member states, like Germany and France to name a few. As first-world countries, the European Union member states pride themselves with their efforts to reach high standards of living for their citizens. However, despite their “first-world” status, even the most advanced EU member states struggle with the presence of human rights violations within their borders. Violence against women is an issue that is still very evident across European Union member states.

According to the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, the term “violence against women” refers to any act of gender-based violence that results in physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women whether occurring in the public or private life.

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“Violence against women is one of the biggest and most widespread violation of women’s human rights,” Said Irene Rosales, a member of the European Women’s Lobby, which is an independent organization working on the EU level.

Through its research the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights has concluded that one in every three women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15; one in five women has experienced stalking; and every second a woman is being confronted with one or more forms of sexual harassment. With such results surfacing, the question at hand is; what is the European Union doing to combat violence against women across its member states?

On 6 April 2011, the Council of Europe adopted the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The Istanbul Convention, as it is also known, is the first instrument in Europe to set standards that specifically prevent violence against women and girls, protect its victims and punish perpetrators. The Istanbul Convention, which entered into force on 1 August 2014, is open for the signing and ratification of EU member states as well as EU competences. This Convention also provides for the signing and ratification by the European Union and allows the EU to accede to it to the extent of its competences.

Since its entry into force, 26 EU member states have signed and ratified the Istanbul Convention, including Belgium and Denmark. Although the Istanbul Convention has brought the European Union one step closer to reaching a violence-free Europe, it is difficult for the EU to implement such policies in individual member states without overstepping its role. The EU cannot force its member states who have signed the Convention to fund or implement the policies set out in the Convention since it is a political agreement and there is no legally binding instrument.

Shocking results were revealed from a survey conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights concerning levels of violence against women in European Union member states that placed Denmark at the top of the list with a high of 52% and Poland at the bottom of the list with a low of 19%.

“I think that harassment has increased because pornography in our society has increased,” Said Pascale Maquestiau, a member of Le Monde Selon Les Femmes, which is an NGO working to combat violence against women.

With the release of these results, many theories were formed concerning the accuracy of the data collected from member states while conducting the FRA survey. Skeptics criticized that the high ranking of Scandinavian countries like Denmark is actually a reflection of their high level of gender equality. The bases of this theory emerges from the strong belief that women in Scandinavian countries actually report attacks held out against them, whereas women from other European Union member states do not feel as safe and protected to file police reports on such attacks.

Reporting an attack such as domestic abuse, rape or harassment is an extremely sensitive issue for victims of the attack. It is difficult for victims of rape or sexual harassment to be able to gather the courage to file police reports on the accounts they have experienced. If member states do not have a safe and secure environment where the victim is not subjected to further harm, many cases of violence against women will go unreported. This unwillingness on the part of a victim of gender-based violence or domestic abuse to report such a crime compromises the accuracy of any survey conducted on the matter and particularly the survey conducted by the FRA.

“It has always been undermined, and the reality of the problem has always been considered as a private issue,” Said Rosales. “There is a wide acceptance in society towards this phenomenon.”

In a press release by the European Commission in March 2016, the European Commission proposed that the European Union “accedes to the Convention within its competences and alongside the member states,” referring to the Istanbul Convention. The press release explained that the EU accession to the Istanbul Convention will also bring additional benefits such as a mandate for better data collection at EU level.

“Currently, there is not enough data to show the extent and nature of violence against women,” stated the European Commission press release. “EU accession to the Convention would oblige Member States to collect and send accurate and comparable data to Eurostat, the statistical office of the EU. Better understanding the phenomenon will help tackle it.”

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Finding solutions to eliminate violence against women across EU member states is not only a human rights issue, it also has its economic advantages. According to the Istanbul Convention, gender-based violence against women costs approximately 226 billion euros per year. If European Union member states reduce gender-based violence against women by 10% they would be saving approximately 7 billion euros each year.

Outside organizations such as Le Monde Selon Les Femmes work to combat and raise awareness concerning all forms of gender-based violence against women as well as empower women in society. The goal of this feminist NGO, which is based in Belgium, is to reach equality between men and women through its advocacy in Belgium’s government. Pascale Maquestiau, a member of Le Monde Selon Les Femmes, explains her thoughts on the current situation in Belgium.

“I thought—in Belgium certainly we have a good law about that,” Said Maquestiau referring to the punishment of aggressors in situations of rape or harassment. “So I tried to find something and I understood that we don’t have a good law and we don’t have good prosecution. It is not a problem for the people [in Belgium] and for me that was incredible,” Said Maquestiau.

Belgium, which ranked among the top 10 EU countries with the highest percentage of violence against women according to the FRA survey released in 2014 still struggles from the problem of sexual harassment, rape and domestic abuse.

“Which kind of society do we have? It is very difficult for girls to live in Belgium when we don’t have repression for aggressors in the street. Why?” Said Maquestiau.

As an advocate, Maquestiau sets up workshops to train and raise awareness among young women and men concerning the issue of violence against women and domestic abuse. In her opinion, working with men is fundamental to solving the issues of rape, sexual harassment or domestic abuse.

“All the time people want to help the women who lived through sexual abuse or rape, which is important, But, its important also to work with men,” Maquestiau said. “All the time we repair women, but we do not solve the problem.” added Maquestiau.