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Violence against Women is a hidden EU problem

European Parliament
European Parliament

A shocking report from the EU has laid out the scale of the problem of violence against women in its member countries. As Zuzana Brezinova examines, the numbers reported are only half of the story. 

“About one third of women in the EU have experienced physical or sexual abuse since the age of 15, which corresponds to 62 million women in total” says the latest report released by the European Union´s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) on Wednesday 5 March.

The FRA report, the first of its kind at the EU level, could become a turning point in European legislation wherein legally binding directives addressing violence against women, either physical or sexual, are practically absent. The results of the survey, however striking as they are, reveal the real extent and severity of the problem within the EU-28 and overthrow the stereotypical mindsets of Europeans influenced by the media coverage of the issue who have long considered violence against women as confined to the Middle Eastern or developing societies.

“Violence against women, and specifically gender-based violence that disproportionately affects women, is an extensive human rights abuse that the EU cannot afford to overlook. What emerges is a picture of extensive abuse that affects many women’s lives, but is systematically under-reported to the authorities,” explained Morten Kjaerum director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights.

“This report presents the first results from the most comprehensive survey to date at the level of the EU on women’s diverse experiences of violence. It is hoped that the report’s findings are taken up by those women and men who can advocate and initiate change to address violence against women,” added Kjaerum in his foreword to the survey.

From the 42,000 women aged 18-74 years interviewed in the 28 EU countries (1,500 women per member state on average) an estimated 13 million have experienced physical violence in the course of the 12 months before the survey interviews, which corresponds to 7 % of all women within the indicated age group. Approximately 2 % of EU women, which is about 3.7 million in real figures, have been victims of sexual assault. One in twenty has been raped since the age of 15 and at least 18 % of all women have experience stalking. About 21 million women reported an experience of some sort of sexual abuse or incident by an adult since the age of 15. Last, but not least, over a half of all women indicated that they avoid certain situations or places for fear of being physically or sexually assaulted compared to far fewer men according to existing surveys on crime victimisation and fear of crime.

The highest number of cases was reported in Denmark (52 %), Finland (47 %) and Sweden (46 %), followed by France and the UK. The lowest incidence of violence against women was registered in Poland (19 %), which is surprising especially in relation to the first triad of Scandinavian countries. All of them are liberal welfare states with strong social democratic parties, praised for their gender equality and emphasis on family values.

Worryingly, all the reported figures are in fact believed to be even higher. According to FRA approximately 67 % of women didn´t report the most serious incidents of domestic violence to the police or a support organisation, within the last 12 months.  Reasons for this silent suffering are varied. In some countries, as the Agency for Fundamental Rights indicates, it is culturally unacceptable to talk about experiences of violence, in others gender equality plays an important role. The abuse of women is more likely to be addressed in countries that promote gender equality, than in more patriarchal societies. Often the women are faced with a difficult choice to either hold their tongues or be expelled from the community.

Existence of legally binding directive is yet another important factor that has to be accounted for in relation to the real extent of the problem. Here the EU could be seen as at the same level as countries like Russia, Lebanon or Saudi Arabia. It was not until 2011 when the Council of Europe proposed what would become the first legally binding document to combat violence against women. The Istanbul Convention, the document´s official title, addresses women’s abuse as a gender-based violence and classifies it as a form of structural violence, which is “even more obvious if we look at the patchy attempts of the police, courts and social services to help women victims,” says the text. The only imperfection it has, is that it has not yet been enacted as the ratification of at least ten member states is needed. Meanwhile in the EU there is a gap in laws which needs to be filled.

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