Back Five steps to increase women’s safety

New Europe, 10/07/2013

Violence against women is one of the most widespread and serious human rights violations occurring every day in Europe. Only in the last three weeks more than five women have been killed in different countries, including Austria, Italy, Spain and Ukraine.

These murders are only the tip of a much larger iceberg of thousands of cases happening all over the world. Although there is a lack of comprehensive data, it is conservatively estimated that more than 60,000 women and girls die yearly in the world due to violent causes. This death toll is higher than those of some pandemic flus, like the swine flu, and yet violence against women has so far not received the same attention and resources the international community has dedicated to the influenza pandemic.

If one includes non-lethal violence against women in the tally, it becomes clear that change is urgent.

As reported by the World Health Organisation on June 20, one out of three women is a victim of physical and psychological violence, resulting in in severe and long-lasting negative health consequences. By taking into account other forms of violence, including stalking, other studies indicate that 45% of women have experienced some sort of violence during their life. Initial data analysis of an EU-wide survey carried out by the Fundamental Rights Agency confirms this dreadful trend.

These studies unequivocally show the magnitude of the problem, but progress is too slow, even in Europe. An example is the slow pace of ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. This Convention helps frame the work of national and local authorities, including police and health officials, around four key principles of the fight against violence: prevention, protection, prosecution and integrated policies. Open to signature since May 2011, it has been so far ratified only by five countries: Albania, Italy, Montenegro, Portugal and Turkey. Five more countries have to ratify it before it can enter into force. Austria has declared its intention to follow suit and I hope more countries will do the same.

However, ratifications alone will not solve this complex phenomenon. Concrete and concerted actions must follow. I see in particular five key areas where gender sensitive measures should be reinforced. First, political leaders, opinion makers, public personalities, in particular men, must take the lead in condemning violence against women and use their influence on public opinion to promote a cultural shift in which nobody turns their eyes away from violence against women.

In addition, prosecution of offenders should be made more effective. Women victims of violence are not safe as long as the offenders are free to offend again. In many cases ending in death, the victims had already suffered and denounced previous violence perpetrated by the same offender without receiving adequate protection.

This is where two other key actors come into play: the police and health professionals. As they are usually the first to encounter situations of violence against women, they need constant training to recognise it and to provide women with gender sensitive help and care. Special attention should be paid to the particular vulnerability of migrant women who are less likely to report an incident to the police for various reasons, including their residence status and previous bad experience with foreign police.

The last element, arguably a pivotal one, is education. European States have to invest more in all forms of education and awareness raising, starting from early childhood, if they really want to come to terms with the root causes of violent male behaviour, which is often based on cultures of machismo and ingrained patterns of patriarchy. Without education, all other measures aimed at stamping out violence against women cannot succeed.