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Chronic violence against European women

Although women enjoy unprecedented rights, a new report reveals a massive human rights crisis in the European Union.

Last updated: 15 Mar 2014 11:32
Kait Bolongaro

Kait Bolongaro is a journalist, photographer and a Master's student of Journalism and Political Science. Her research interests include politics, environmental issues, migration and education.
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Violence against women isn't receiving enough attention in most European countries, writes Bolongaro [AFP]

In early March the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) published a startling new study about violence against women in the European Union. Results show that abuse is pandemic: 62 million women, or one in three, have suffered from violent acts since the age of 15. It is clear that European women continue to endure high levels of violence.

Researchers interviewed more than 42,000 women in 28 member states of the EU, the largest report of its kind ever undertaken. Participants were surveyed about their experiences of psychological, physical and sexual violence. Women were also asked if they had been sexually harassed or stalked and how new technologies were used by perpetrators to mistreatment them.

Morten Kjaerum, director of FRA, said of the results: "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."

Findings confirm Kjaerum's conclusions. According to the investigation, 55 percent of women have been sexually harassed and 18 percent have been stalked and 43 percent have faced psychological abuse. One in 10 has experienced sexual violence; one in 20 has been raped and 8 percent of women have been abused in the last 12 months. Of all the age groups polled, young women were found to be particularly vulnerable to violent acts.

The data was organised by country with respondents in Denmark (52 percent), Finland (47 percent) and Sweden (46 percent) reporting the highest rates of violence. Women in Poland (19 percent), Austria (20 percent), Greece (21 percent) and Spain (22 percent) recorded the lowest levels. At first it appears that Nordic countries have higher levels of abuse. However, when figures from the survey are compared to the European Institute for Gender Equality's Gender Equality Index there is a correlation between high gender equality and higher incidents of violence reported to authorities.

Violence against women isn't receiving enough attention in most European countries. Instead, it is ignored, often typecast as endemic to other parts of the world, while abuse persists and thrives on European soil.

Violence against women isn't receiving enough attention in most European countries. Instead, it is ignored, often typecast as endemic to other parts of the world, while abuse persists and thrives on European soil.

Despite unprecedented levels of gender equality, the European Union needs to do more to address this issue.

Challenges ahead

One stumbling block is the ongoing legal discrepancies between member states. There is no bloc-wide definition of abuse and penalties for crimes vary from country to country. For example, although rape is considered a crime in every EU state, what constitutes rape is ambiguous. So far, attempts to create a comprehensive legal framework have floundered.

The Council of Europe adopted the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence in 2011; however, only three EU member states ratified the agreement.

Another serious problem is the systematic under-reporting of violent attacks. In the study, only 14 percent of women reported abuse to authorities. In many cases, women don't feel comfortable going to the police. A study in Australia found that women don't report domestic violence out of fear of further violence, feelings of shame and embarrassment, and believing their case isn't important. This statistic may also be impacted by predominantly male law enforcement, while female victims are often more comfortable reporting abuse to female officers.

Perhaps the most critical step is to end the enduring culture of silence on violence against women. Abuse, particularly domestic violence, remains socially permissible if it is kept in the private sphere. Legal decisions from the European Court of Human Rights have found that domestic violence is treated as a private dispute between partners in many European countries, not a public matter requiring government interference and prosecution.

Where legislation exists, it must be applied at a grassroots level to make a measurable impact on women's lives. Authorities need to ensure that services are available for victims of violence: Emergency health care, shelters, safe houses, social workers, support groups and phone services. More importantly, women must have easy access to these services and be informed of their existence.

Harassment can be dealt with in innovative ways, particularly with social media and information technologies. In Egypt, Harassmap has aimed to end the acceptance of sexual harassment and assault. It plots on a map where users experience abuse and helps victims receive services. In Canada, donated cellular phones are given to victims of domestic violence to call authorities in case of an emergency.

Men have an important role to play in eliminating violence against women. UN Women's latest campaign "He For She" is focused on involving men's voices in the struggle to end abuse and achieve gender equality. Including men in the discussion is critical to stopping the cycle of violence, most often perpetuated by men against women, but also to reaffirm that violence isn't only a "women's issue". It is a human rights issue that impacts both genders and lies at the heart of injustice.

Violence against women is an epidemic found across all cultural, religious and ethnic origins in every region of the world. It requires international cooperation to solve this complex and pressing issue. In 1979, the Convention to the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, including violence, was signed at the United Nations.

Thirty five years later, we are still surprised to hear about violent attacks committed against women, especially in Europe. However, until women have the necessary support, violence will continue to be a reality for many of the world's women.

Kait Bolongaro is a journalist, photographer and a Master's student of Journalism and Political Science. Her research interests include politics, environmental issues, migration and education.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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