Written by Rosamund Shreeves
On this year’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, this 25 November, crisis and conflict are more than ever on our minds – and on the political agenda.
As recent research from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) highlights, conflict and displacement exacerbate violence against vulnerable groups, including women. In Syria, Iraq, Libya and Nigeria, women and girls have been abducted for the purposes of sexual exploitation, forced marriage or forms of slavery. Asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants have been primary targets for traffickers able to act with impunity due to the breakdown of the rule of law. Refugee families trapped in desperate conditions and insecurity are adopting ‘negative coping strategies’, such as forced early marriages, hoping to protect their daughters from sexual violence or to escape from poverty. In the face of this increased danger of gender-based violence, the IOM has called for a proportionate, gender-sensitive humanitarian response, which systematically includes counter-trafficking strategies.
For the EU, one of the challenges will be to ensure that women and girls who come to Europe, and who may have been victims of violence, are given the protection they need. A draft report on the situation of women refugees and asylum seekers in the EU, issued this November by the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (rapporteur: Mary Honeyball, S&D, UK), gives an overview of issues refugee women must face. As well as listing the forms of gender-based violence to which this group of women is potentially subject, it gives recommendations for gender-sensitive asylum and immigration policies at all stages: refugee status determination, asylum procedures, reception and detention and social integration. The Committee is also working on a report on the gender dimension of human trafficking, which will focus, amongst other things, on the connections between trafficking and forced prostitution in EU countries and best practice when it comes to prevention. The report will also look into the implementation of Directive 2011/36/EU, the main EU instrument for preventing and combating human trafficking, which took a step forward by recognising that responses and prevention measures should be gender-specific and adopting a victim-centred approach. The supporting EU strategy towards the Eradication of Trafficking in Human Beings, which set the priorities for action for the period 2012-16, defined a series of measures to address the gender dimension of trafficking and identified violence against women as a root cause.
Migrant women also carry with them the added burden of being victims of forms of gender-based abuse, such as FGM or honour crimes, which have only recently been recognised as occurring in the EU. As a consequence, understanding of the special nature of these crimes and reasons behind them may not have been adequate to deal with the issues effectively and, in comparison with other forms of gender-based violence, European legislation and policy is reportedly lagging behind.
Here, the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention is the first Treaty to recognise that FGM exists in Europe and that it needs to be systematically addressed. The Treaty requires states to prevent, prosecute and eliminate all forms of physical, psychological and sexual violence against women and girls, including rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment, stalking, forced abortion, forced sterilisation, honour crimes and killings, and FGM. It is also the first legally binding instrument in Europe on preventing violence against women and domestic violence.
For a number of years, the European Parliament has called for the EU and the individual Member States to ratify this Convention, which would ensure similar protection for women across the Union. In October this year, the European Commission issued an indicative roadmap for possible EU accession to the Convention, stating that EU accession would reduce violence against women and improve the health and lives of victims.
That this remains a burning issue is clear from last year’s EU-wide FRA survey, which found that violence against women and girls is still an extensive but widely under-reported human rights abuse across the EU, and one which requires renewed policy attention. As an illustration, it is estimated that one in three women in the EU has experienced physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15. One in ten women has experienced sexual harassment or stalking through new technologies. This year’s Eurobarometer on Gender Equality shows that 59% of Europeans believe that violence against women is the gender inequality issue that should be dealt with as a priority.
Violence against women and girls is not confined to a particular culture or country or to particular groups of women within society. Whether the violence happens far away or close to home, the roots of violence against women and girls lie in persistent discrimination and inequalities, which must be tackled, as a matter of urgency.
An overall analysis of the EU legislative framework and policy initiatives on violence against women is available in the EPRS Briefing on Violence against Women in the EU: State of Play (June 2016 edition available now). EPRS will be publishing a series of individual briefings on harmful practices, beginning with an overview and an exploration of the issue of honour crimes.