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International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, 2017

Written by Rosamund Shreeves with Giulio Sabbati and Martina Prpic,

‘When words break through unspeakability, what was tolerated by a society sometimes becomes intolerable (Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of all Questions, 2017)

This year, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 November, takes place against a backdrop of revelations about sexual harassment, that were followed by women sharing their personal experiences on social media, highlighting the magnitude of the problem, helping to raise public awareness, and igniting conversations throughout the EU.

International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women 25 NovemberWhat does the data say about the scale of sexual harassment in Europe?

The data shows that sexual harassment is a widespread and common experience for women in the EU, both in the workplace and in other settings.

The most comprehensive survey on violence against women at EU level – based on interviews with 42 000 women in all 28 EU Member States on their experiences of physical and sexual violence, sexual harassment and stalking over the past year and since the age of 15 – was published by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) in 2014. Since perceptions of what constitutes sexual harassment can differ from person to person according to individuals’ awareness of their rights and cultural attitudes in society and workplaces, the survey asked women about their experiences of eleven specific forms of unwanted and offensive behaviour, covering a spectrum of verbal, non-verbal, online and physical acts of unwelcome sexual attention or coercion. The acts were ranked along a continuum, from verbal harassment to physical assault.

The survey found that one in two women (55 %) have experienced sexual harassment at least once since the age of 15, whilst 45 % have experienced the forms of harassment identified as most threatening and serious. In the workplace, 75 % of women in qualified professions or top management jobs and 61 % of women employed in the service sector have been subject to sexual harassment. One third (32 %) of all victims in the EU said the perpetrator was their boss, a colleague, or a customer. One in ten women has experienced sexual harassment or stalking through new technologies. Many forms of sexual harassment happen repeatedly and the majority of women have experienced more than one type of sexual harassment over their lifetime. The FRA survey data and other recent European and national studies also illustrate that young women are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment, including in schools, higher education and workplaces, and to cyber harassment. Whilst being better educated can protect women from sexual abuse in intimate relationships, it also exposes them to more sexual harassment, as they are more likely to be present and prominent in social and political life. The political arena was not addressed specifically in the FRA survey. However, a 2016 International Parliamentary Union (IPU) study on sexism, harassment and violence against women parliamentarians highlights the prevalence of sexual harassment, including requests for sexual favours in exchange for material and/or political advantages (‘sextortion‘). In public spaces and on public transport sexual harassment is also widespread.

In Belgium, a law aimed at combating sexism in public spaces, with penalties including fines of up to €1 000 and prison sentences of up to one year, was adopted in 2014.
In France, draft legislation on street harassment will go before parliament in early 2018.
In the Netherlands, street harassment is already an offence in Amsterdam, and will be indictable in Rotterdam from 1 January 2018, with a penalty of up to €4 100.

One of the key FRA survey findings, for all types of violence, is that the majority of women do not report their experiences, meaning that they are not receiving support or redress and that official data does not reflect the true scale of the problem. In the case of sexual harassment, 35 % of the women had not spoken to anyone about the most serious incident before the survey interview, and only 4 % had reported it to their employer or to the police. One in five victims (20 %) said that the most serious incident made her feel ashamed of what had taken place, something often cited in women’s recent testimonies as a reason for staying silent. Half (52 %) of the women who had not talked to anyone about the most serious incident said that this was because they had dealt with the harassment themselves. One explanation for this is that women tend to downplay the seriousness of incidents, particularly if sexual harassment is tolerated or seen as ‘normal’ in a particular cultural context. Alternatively, according to a recent UK survey on workplace sexual harassment, some women feel that sexual harassment is so commonplace that challenging it is hopeless. In this survey, other reasons women gave for not reporting incidents to their employer were: fears that doing so would have a negative impact on their working relationships (28 %), or career (15 %); feeling that they would not be believed or taken seriously (24 %); embarrassment (20 %); not knowing how to report it (12 %); or not knowing that they could report it (9 %).

Regarding the outcome of reporting, the FRA survey found that the majority of women who did contact their employer, a trade union, a doctor, a counsellor, or a victim support organisation, were either very satisfied or fairly satisfied with the response they received. However, in the UK workplace survey, the minority of women who had reported sexual harassment said that there had been no positive change and 16 % reported that they were actually treated worse as a result.

Individual testimonies

“On my last day at work, a colleague told me that his biggest regret was that he didn’t get the chance to rape me in the store room before I left. For months I had been scared to go into that room on my own because he always said things like, “I’m coming to get you” and “Don’t go in there alone, I’ll jump on you.”“At the job I recently left, a male manager said to me (in front of a female manager) that I would do well in the organisation because I have big boobs.”

“I used to work in a law firm. Whenever I won a case in court, I would be lambasted by a particular male colleague who would leer at me and make comments like “How much did you pay the judge to win the case?”, “You only won because you’re wearing a skirt” and “Did you sleep with the judge then?”

“On a night out, stood in a crowd of male colleagues who were considerably older than me (I was 19) when one of them interrupted me by leaning through the circle and touching my boob while the rest laughed. Not one of them said anything or even seemed to think it was wrong.”

Still just a bit of banter? Sexual harassment in the workplace in 2016, Trade Union Congress (TUC) / Everyday Sexism Project, UK 2016

What does EU and national legislation say about sexual harassment?

No EU law explicitly prohibits sexual harassment in all contexts. Under Directive 2006/54/EC Member States and employers have a duty to protect women against sexual harassment in the workplace (including access to employment, vocational training and promotion). The directive defines sexual harassment as, ‘any form of uninvited verbal, non-verbal, or physical behaviour of a sexual character that is either performed intentionally or has as a result the offence against a person’s dignity, especially when it creates for him/her an environment that is threatening, hostile, undermining, insulting, or derogatory’. European employers’ organisations and trade unions have also signed an agreement on harassment and violence at work that defines the duties and best practice procedures. Directive 2010/41/EU extends this protection to the self-employed, whilst Directive 2004/113/EC extends the scope to certain goods and services (but currently excludes the media, advertising and education).

Although this EU anti-discrimination law is embedded in national law, it has not had the expected impact. One issue is that sexual harassment continues to be understood differently across the EU. As the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) reports, definitions vary widely in national legislation, and only 12 Member States have made it a criminal offence. Even then, the definitions may be very restrictive, only apply in an employment context, or if the victim is in a subordinate position to the perpetrator.

What more can be done and what action is being taken?

A new study for the European Parliament’s Committee for Women’s Rights and Gender Equality finds that harmonising the definitions of all the various forms of violence against women and criminalising them as a specific offences would make them more visible. It would also improve data collection and monitoring, and the effectiveness of prosecution and prevention, and provide a better basis for policy. European bodies, including Equinet and the Fundamental Rights Agency propose that the Member States and the EU should review their legislation and policy on sexual harassment and extend them to cover sexual harassment in other contexts besides the workplace, including new media. EIGE has also urged EU Member States to do more to raise public awareness that sexual harassment is a crime that needs to be reported and prosecuted, and to support frontline organisations.

To help ensure a more coordinated legislative and policy framework on violence against women, the European Commission and the European Parliament are urging the eleven Member States that have not yet done so to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention). They also call for speedy ratification by the EU, which signed the Convention in May 2017. The Istanbul Convention defines sexual harassment (Article 40). It also requires the parties to prohibit sexual harassment in all contexts, including the private sphere, and to establish effective policies to prevent and combat harassment, including effective and dissuasive criminal and non-criminal sanctions. As part of its 2017 year of action to combat violence against women, the Commission has issued a study on the extent of sexual harassment and other forms of gender based violence in sport. The Commission has also made €4 million available to the Member States for awareness raising and education on violence against women, including sexual harassment, and €6 million for civil society organisations for projects to combat violence against women or support its victims. The website dedicated to the campaign contains stories of people and projects fighting sexual harassment and a list of helplines in various European countries for those who need help.

Looking forward, consultations with stakeholders at the European Commission’s 2017 Annual Colloquium on Fundamental Rights on 20-21 November highlighted that combating sexual harassment and other forms of violence against women, including online sexual harassment and misogynistic hate speech, and the gender stereotypes and structural power relations that underpin them, will need to be a key part of the next Gender Equality Strategy. EIGE’s new framework for measuring violence against women already includes some indicators on sexual harassment. A Eurostat taskforce is planning a second EU-wide survey on violence against women, which will update the existing data.

Closer to home, on 26 October 2017, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on combating sexual harassment and abuse in the EU, which also commits to reviewing its own internal procedures for preventing and reporting sexual harassment.


One in two women in the EU experience sexual harassment

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