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International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

Written by Rosamund Shreeves,

© sunsdesign0014 / Fotolia

This year’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 November marks just over a year since revelations about harassment by a prominent film industry executive and the resulting global sharing of women’s personal experiences on social media raised public awareness of the scale and omnipresence of sexual harassment. Over this time, the issue has remained in the public eye. The Pew Research Center estimates that the initial #MeToo hashtag on Twitter has been used around 19 million times over this period, whilst national variations have emerged, for instance in France, Italy and Spain. Similar hashtag campaigns have also emerged around other forms of gender-based violence. In Spain, for instance, #cuéntalo and nationwide protests were ignited this May, following a court decision to acquit five men of the crime of rape after they performed non-consensual sex with a teenager.

Are these movements prompting concrete and lasting change? A 2018 European Parliament study on bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace, public spaces and political life found that the #MeToo movement has not only been successful in evidencing and raising awareness of the magnitude of the phenomenon but also led to debate about its underlying causes and possible responses. Looking at the reaction in nine EU countries (Sweden, Finland, UK, Spain, Italy, Poland, France, Denmark and Greece), it concludes that the movement has led to the standards of what is considered acceptable being redrawn. The campaign has also been credited with providing the momentum to push through a new law in France outlawing street harassment (‘wolf-whistling’), and new legislation in Sweden, clarifying what qualifies as consent and removing the requirement to provide evidence of force and/or resistance in order to establish rape. A similar law has been proposed in Spain, where the greater awareness brought by #MeToo is reported to be connected to a rise in the number of women coming forward to report rape and assault.

However, both this study and the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency caution that much remains to be done to arrive at a clear picture of sexual harassment across the EU, particularly to ensure that voices from marginalised groups such as women with disabilities, Roma women, women from rural areas and undocumented migrant women are heard, to change attitudes, and to ensure that sexual harassment is addressed holistically, in connection with wider gender inequalities, particularly in view of the current backlash against gender equality both globally and within the EU itself.

One specific area that has come under the spotlight is the nature and extent of online sexual harassment and abuse, particularly against women in the public eye and in politics and the potential impact on women’s political participation and the representativeness of our political institutions. The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women has looked into both issues in her 2018 report to the UN General Assembly.

In October 2018, the IPU released a follow-up to its 2016 global study on sexism, harassment and violence against women parliamentarians, focusing this time on the European region and including respondents from all EU Member States except Malta and Slovakia. The study confirms that female members of parliament (MPs) in Europe are particular targets of online attacks. Of the 81 female MPs interviewed, 58.2 % had experience of abusive, sexual or violent content and behaviour on social networks. Most of the threats against female MPs were also made via electronic communication. A recent study for the European Parliament also finds that women who have a public role, including journalists and politicians are particularly targeted by online and offline harassment. Studies conducted for national Parliaments paint a similar picture. In the UK, a House of Commons inquiry into abuse, hate and extremism online found that all MPs were vulnerable to abuse, but that it particularly affected women MPs, and that it was possible to ‘break that down even further to ethnic minority MPs and, in particular, ethnic minority women MPs’.

The studies highlight that this level of abuse is one of the factors that can dissuade women from entering politics and hinder them from fulfilling their mandate when they do take office. The fact that younger MPs under the age of 40 and MPs from minority groups are more likely to have experienced abuse in the media and on social networks is particularly concerning, as it presents a real threat to progress towards making politics more representative. Research by the European Institute for Gender Equality has also flagged the extent of cyber-harassment against young women in general and the chilling effect on young women engaging in debates and being politically active online. Female MPs taking a stance on gender equality and gender-based violence were also a particular target.

Academic research in the UK has found that events such as general elections and referenda see a huge spike in online hate. With the European elections fast approaching and online campaigning using social media becoming an increasingly important channel, there is much to be done to ensure that women are genuinely able to participate.

Action by the European Parliament

In the past year, the European Parliament has issued two resolutions highlighting the issue of sexual harassment:

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