Written by Rosamund Shreeves.
The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 November marks the beginning of 16 days of global activism to raise awareness of this enduring violation of women’s and girl’s human rights and to share promising solutions. The end goal, symbolised by the colour orange, is to create a brighter world where all women live free from the many forms of violence perpetrated against them because they are women and from the attitudes and behaviours that allow this violence to continue. In connection with this year’s campaign, the United Nations (UN) stresses that gender-based violence against women is pervasive but not inevitable and that there are effective means of preventing and stopping it.
Once again, the backdrop to this year’s campaign is the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Worldwide, it has been associated with an increase in many forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG), including domestic violence, cyber-violence, female genital mutilation (FGM), early marriage and human trafficking. Within the EU, the biggest spotlight has fallen on the rise in domestic violence, connected with lockdowns and the economic impacts of the pandemic. In 2020, comparative research for the European Parliament concluded that the pandemic has led to an increase in the prevalence and intensity of violence against women in some EU countries. This research and the European Institute for Gender Equality’s analysis of the impacts of the pandemic on intimate partner violence also find that the pandemic has created significant challenges for victim support organisations – as well as shining a harsh light on gaps in provision. Many forms of violence, including trafficking of women for sexual exploitation, have moved online, making victims even less visible and less able to ask for help and protection, as well as complicating efforts to tackle it.
At the same time, the pandemic has catalysed action. The efforts made during the pandemic illustrate what can be done with political will and resources. The Covid‑19 Global Gender Response Tracker, launched by UN Women and UNDP in September 2020, continues to monitor measures taken by governments worldwide to address violence against women and girls. It shows that the majority of EU countries have responded proactively to protect women, maintain existing services and introduce innovative ways of providing support for victims. EU Member States have shared promising measures. Some will use EU recovery funding to expand support for women who are victims of violence, including Belgium (for housing) and Spain (for hotlines).
Tackling gender-based violence – what works?
Good data is key to implementing successful prevention measures and providing survivors with the right support. In Italy, longitudinal data on calls to the national anti-violence helpline has helped to direct resources to services. It also demonstrates that information campaigns organised around the annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and during the pandemic have been effective in raising women’s awareness of the tools available and their ability to seek help. In Spain, policies for eradicating violence against women are based on a national survey. Since 2019, it has included detailed questions for all types of violence about who the aggressor was, whether more than one perpetrator was involved, where the violence took place, how often, what the impacts were, whether and how it was reported and how satisfied the victim was with the result. Among other things, this level of data has made it possible to identify women who are particularly vulnerable to violence. For example, it shows that women with disabilities are more likely to suffer physical or sexual violence from a partner and that for one in five (23.4 %) their disability resulted from their partner’s violence. It also shows that young women aged 16 to 24 are more likely to experience stalking and sexual harassment, while women aged over 65 are more likely to experience intimate partner violence than women who are under 65, less likely to use services and more likely to hide the violence. Intimate partner violence is also higher for women born abroad. Reliable EU-level data could provide a similar level of knowledge to inform policy. The last EU-wide survey on violence against women was conducted in 2012. Eurostat will publish the findings of the follow-up, now underway, in 2023.
A comprehensive framework of legislation for preventing violence, supporting victims and prosecuting perpetrators is another important lever. Research shows that ratification of the Istanbul Convention, which sets minimum standards in all these areas, has contributed directly to the creation of services for victims in a number of EU countries and led to improvements in prevention and prosecution. EU accession to the Convention remains one of the EU’s priorities for preventing and combating violence against women, since it could help to provide more equal protection for women across Europe against all forms of gender-based violence. However, since 2017, when the EU signed the Convention, the accession process has stalled in the Council, where Member States must reach an agreement on the proposal. In October 2021, the European Court of Justice clarified that the decision should be taken by qualified majority voting, but the Council may take more time to build support before taking a decision. In view of the delay, the European Commission is now set to propose alternative legal measures. On 12 November 2021, Helena Dalli, the European Commissioner for Equality, explained to Members of Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) and Civil Liberties, Justice & Home Affairs (LIBE) Committees that the EU directive on violence against women to be proposed by the Commission will set standards for prevention, protection and access to justice for victims, and criminalisation of specific forms of violence against women, to the extent of EU competence. It will take a victim-centred and intersectional approach and go beyond the Istanbul Convention by addressing both online and offline forms of violence. The European Parliament has long considered that EU accession to the Istanbul Convention and an EU directive are both important initiatives that should be pursued in parallel. Another longstanding demand is for violence against women to be added to the areas of serious crime listed in the Treaties, in recognition of its severity across the Union and as a solid legal basis for a comprehensive EU directive. In September 2021, Parliament adopted an own legislative initiative resolution with recommendations to the Commission on adding gender-based violence to the existing areas of serious crime. The accompanying European added value assessment by EPRS identifies five reasons why the EU has grounds to criminalise gender-based violence, including evidence that it costs society more than the crimes already listed in Article 83(1), including corruption, organised crime and illicit drug trafficking. The EWL, Europe’s umbrella organisation for women’s organisations, is also calling for violence against women to be recognised as an area of serious crime in Article 83(1) TFEU and for an EU directive on violence against women.
Transforming the attitudes, behaviours, and social norms that lie at the root of violence against women and girls is both a vital way of preventing it and a challenge. The World Health Organization and UN Women, amongst others, stress that this is a fruitful and effective area for intervention. Their framework, RESPECT women: Preventing violence against women, provides guidelines and examples of good practices for policy-makers for working with communities and individuals – including men and boys.
What are the attitudes and norms in Europe around violence against women? In the past 20 years, the European Commission has conducted Eurobarometer surveys in 1999, 2010 and 2016. The number of EU Member States and the specific questions have varied over time. However, all the surveys have asked for people’s views on how widespread different types of violence against women are, whether they are wrong in all circumstances, and whether they are or should be against the law. The 2016 survey found that there is a need for action, particularly in some countries. The majority of respondents in every country consider that specific acts of psychological, economic and sexual violence and sexual harassment are wrong and either are already against the law or should be so. However, significant minorities did not agree. For instance, almost all respondents (96 %) found domestic violence against women unacceptable, but 12 % did not think it should always be punished by law and 15 % considered it to be a private matter that should be handled within the family. One in ten Europeans (11 %) said that forcing a partner to have sex should not be against the law. Over a quarter (27 %) considered that rape can be justified in certain circumstances, for example, if the woman went home with someone (11 %), was drunk at the time (10 %), wearing revealing or ‘sexy’ clothing (10 %), did not fight back physically (10 %), or had had multiple sexual partners in the past (7 %). Around one in five respondents held other victim-blaming views, for example that women often make up or exaggerate claims of abuse or rape (22 %), or that violence against women is often provoked by the victim (17 %). More recent national polls paint a similar picture. In Italy, a 2018 survey on gender roles, stereotypes and attitudes to sexual violence found significant levels of prejudice around sexual violence. Last year, a survey by the Czech academy of sciences found that two thirds of respondents recognise the harm that may be caused to victims of psychological and physical domestic violence, but one third do not believe that forcing unwanted sexual intercourse upon a spouse or a partner, or socially isolating them would potentially cause very serious damage. The national and European polls illustrate that there is a gap between what Europeans believe and the reality. For example, while 96 % of Europeans say that it is unacceptable, the EU wide survey on violence against women found that 22 % of women have experienced domestic violence against women. There is also a significant gender gap. In Czechia, women consider domestic violence to be a more serious problem than men. The 2016 EU poll found that even in the youngest age groups, girls were more likely than boys to speak about gender-based violence and consider that it should be illegal.
The EU Gender Equality Strategy for 2020-2025 recognises that there is considerable work to do to address sexist perceptions about gender-based violence. It identifies educating boys and girls about gender equality from an early age and supporting the development of non-violent relationships as a key part of an effective policy for preventing violence against women and girls. Action planned by the European Commission includes exchanges of good practice and funding for violence prevention focusing on men, boys and masculinities. Funding of €4 224 700 has recently been announced for projects in this area. These will build on existing EU-funded initiatives, such as work with perpetrators to prevent violence against women, which has issued guidelines for working with men to challenge cyberviolence and published examples of examples of best practices.
Parliament will hear an update on progress towards EU accession to the Istanbul Convention and hold a debate on violence against women at its plenary session on 25 November 2021. A number of its male Members have been ambassadors for the White Ribbon Campaign for male allies against gender-based violence.
Related EPRS publications
- The Istanbul Convention: A tool for tackling violence against women and girls, At a glance briefing, November 2021
- Violence against women in the EU – state of play, Briefing, November 2021
- Gender-based violence as a new area of crime listed in Article 83(1) TFEU, European added value assessment, June 2021
- Combating gender-based cyber-violence at EU level, European added value assessment, March 2021 on gender-based violence, November 2021
- Topical digest on gender-based violence, November 2021
- EP Library Guide: Selected Online Reading on Violence Against Women, 2021
Events for this year’s international day:
At the UN:
- Official UN event, Wednesday 24 November, 16.00-17.30 Brussels time. recording available. The event includes statements on the EU’s external policy on gender-based violence, including the results of the joint EU-UN Spotlight Initiative.
At the European Parliament:
- Commission statement on the International Day of Elimination of Violence Against Women and the state of play on ratification of the Istanbul Convention by the EU, European Parliament Plenary Session, Thursday 25 November 2021 at 9.00, in the Strasbourg hemicycle and via web streaming.
- Inter-parliamentary committee meeting of the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality: Eliminating Violence against Women, Tuesday 30 November 2021, from 9.00‑18.45, European Parliament, Brussels, room SPAAK 1A2 / via webstreaming. Panel discussions on sexual violence as a weapon of war; combating violence against women and girls with disabilities; cyber-violence; and the Istanbul Convention
- Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI) workshop on Femicide as a global human rights concern: from recognition to action, Monday 6 December 2021, 16.45‑18.15, Brussels, Paul Henri Spaak building, room 1A002 / via webstreaming
- Les droits des femmes à l’épreuve des crises’ colloque organisé par la Ville de Strasbourg et en partenariat avec les associations féministes locales, Tuesday 23 November 2021 from 8.30‑17.00, Palais de la Musique et des Congrès (Place de Bordeaux) – salle Erasme. Register free in advance here.
- 25 novembre: journée mondiale contre les violences faites aux femmes
- Debate on obstetric violence, Violences Bienveillance obstétricales. (p)O(u)S(s)EZ, vous y êtes presque!, Tuesday 23 November, 18.30, Centre pour l’égalité Amazone, 10 rue du Méridien, 1210 Bruxelles. Registration: email@example.com
- Demonstration STOP aux violences faites aux femmes, Sunday 28 November, 12.00‑18.00, Mont des Arts (Gare Centrale, place de l’Albertine), Brussels. March leaves at 13.00.