< Viewpoints < 2006

“Why domestic violence is not only a women’s issue”

[24/11/06] In spite of all the positive rhetoric about gender equity, many women are still deprived of their human rights. Not only are women underrepresented in political assemblies and discriminated against on the labour market, they are also subjected to threats against their physical safety. The new Council of Europe campaign focuses on women’s safety and integrity.

Although it is depressing that such a campaign is needed, it is important that the issue of violence against women has been put high on the political agenda. A concrete strategy was outlined by the Committee of Ministers in a recommendation adopted in 2002. The Parliamentary Assembly and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe are also committed to this campaign.

The campaign calls for no less than a major change of attitudes. Although precise data are lacking, it is clear that domestic violence is alarmingly widespread, and European societies are no exception.

Attitudes and behaviour do not change easily. It took a long time before it was established by law that non-consensual sex within marriage was rape. The previous assumption had been that if a woman was married she had to accept sex when her spouse so demanded. In other words, her body was not her own.

A similar attitude was behind the notion of “honour crimes”. These types of crime against women were sometimes seen by authorities as less serious when the honour of the family was at stake. The victims were typically wives, daughters or sisters who wanted to decide for themselves how and with whom to relate.

The practice of female genital mutilation is another extreme form of violence against girls and women, the real purpose of which is to control and repress their sexual life. This inhuman tradition continues to be practised in some African countries and it still happens that young girls living in Europe are mutilated while on “holiday” in their country of origin.

It is true that some of these most abhorrent violations are beginning to disappear, but the obvious principle that women have the right to decide over their own bodies is still not accepted by everyone. The slow reaction against wife beating is one symptom.

This is a key theme in a major study just published by the United Nations. Even if laws have been enacted in many countries, the report makes clear that most national-level responses have been inadequate and have not eradicated the impunity perpetrators too often enjoy.

The UN study describes the deeply negative effects of such brutal discrimination on society as a whole. One of the consequences of domestic violence is that children themselves are traumatised, which, in turn, increases the risk that the violent pattern will be passed on to the next generation and thereby prolong the vicious circle.

The UN report underlines that domestic violence against women should also be classified as a human rights violation. There are two reasons for this. The first is the fact that a large number of women are seriously ill-treated, sometimes in a manner which would be seen as cruel, inhuman and degrading – or even as torture – if carried out by state agents.

The second reason is the recognition that not only individuals but also the authorities do have a responsibility. They should take determined action to prevent such ill-treatment, to investigate every credible report about violations and to prosecute the perpetrators.

That governments could be held responsible for violations between private individuals results from the European Convention on Human Rights, and has been confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights. For instance, the Court considered in the case of MC v. Bulgaria (2003) that “States have a positive obligation inherent in Articles 3 and 8 of the Convention to enact criminal-law provisions effectively punishing rape and to apply them in practice through effective investigation and prosecution”.

Authorities should provide remedies and redress to victims and ensure protection for those at continuous risk. The law should allow for restraining orders against perpetrators.

Policies must also take into account the fact that violence often breeds fear. Battered women may simply not dare to report their situation and those who do so may live in constant terror, fearing that their partner or previous partner will retaliate.

Police work and judicial procedures must be sensitive to these risks. Social workers and health personnel should also have clear instructions on how to act when they see signs of ill-treatment. Shelters should be opened where needed and be equipped to provide psycho-social support.

Domestic violence is also in many cases a tragedy for the perpetrator. Alcohol, poverty, personal frustrations and family or health problems may sometimes trigger the abuses. This underlines the importance of social support and treatment programmes for those persons as well.

Social services are needed but they cannot eliminate the need to establish an ethical consensus that such violence is absolutely unacceptable.

Leading politicians should listen to the women’s movement and help educating the public about the importance of zero tolerance on violence against women. This is not only a “women’s issue” but a concern for society as a whole, including children.

Yes, male politicians should also speak up, and do so with passion.

Thomas Hammarberg


Council of Europe documentation:
Intergovernmental dimension
Parliamentary dimension
Local and regional dimension

UN Documentation:
UN study on violence against women

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