Opinion articles

Back Fighting violence against women must become Europe’s priority

New Europe, 04/01/2016

From migration to the economic crisis and terrorism, European leaders have been busy searching for solutions to very challenging phenomena in 2015. Regrettably, the long-standing problem of violations of women’s rights remained largely off the table. Yet, this is one of the most widespread human rights abuses which takes place every day in Europe.

Gender-based violence is the most serious of the violations many women face. It is estimated that at least 12 women are killed by gender-related violence in Europe every day. At the beginning of December 2015, available statistics showed that domestic violence claimed the lives of over 250 women in Turkey, 113 in Italy, 48 in Spain, and 27 in Portugal, just to mention the few countries where reliable data are available.

This trend is unfortunately similar to that of 2014, a clear indication that policies taken so far have been largely ineffective in tackling this deep-rooted problem. Many women are murdered because they want to divorce or to break up, and in many cases the victims had already reported previous violence perpetrated by the same offender without receiving adequate protection.

A UN study indicates that lethal domestic violence accounts for almost 28% of all intentional homicides in Europe. Women are more likely than men to be killed by people close to them: while intimate partner or family-related violence is responsible for 18% of all male homicides, the number rises to 55% when it comes to women. In Switzerland, for example, 17 women perished in 2014 because of domestic violence, accounting for almost half of all homicides in the country.

If we look at non-lethal domestic violence, the picture is equally grim. According to the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, 22% of women have experienced physical violence by someone other than their partner since the age of 15.

However huge, these are conservative figures, as women tend to underreport cases of violence, mainly because of the lack of trust in law enforcement bodies. This is understandable because all too often state institutions have been unresponsive to those women who find the courage to report.

This is a failure that should make us question not only our political commitment and the functioning of our law enforcement bodies, but also our broader societal culture. European countries and the European Union have to take more resolute action and find adequate responses to prevent violence and address its social, economic and cultural causes.

A first step towards that goal is for all European countries and the EU to ratify and implement the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also called the Istanbul Convention. It entered into force in August 2014 and, by last December, it had been ratified by 20 countries and signed by an additional 19. 8 countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Moldova and Russia) have neither signed, nor ratified it.

The Istanbul Convention is a powerful tool to fight the scourge of violence against women. Specifically dedicated to several forms of such violence, it has a victim-centred approach and contains a comprehensive array of practical tools to help improve the response of all relevant actors.

It clearly states that Parties have an obligation to prevent violence, protect victims and punish the perpetrators. Measures in this regard need to form part of a set of integrated policies. This is crucial, because we can hope to end violence against women only if gender stereotypes and roles are deconstructed, attitudes are changed, laws are amended, women are empowered and justice is within reach. Crucially, the Convention also establishes a specific monitoring mechanism in order to ensure the effective implementation of its provisions by the Parties.

Implementing the Convention is not just a matter of laws and practice, but should also lead to deeper and durable societal and policy changes.

First, political leaders, journalists, opinion makers, public personalities, in particular men, must take the lead in condemning all cases of violence against women. They should use their influence on public opinion to promote a cultural shift in which nobody turns their eyes away.

In addition, the justice system must be more victim-friendly and prosecution of offenders should be made more effective. Women victims of violence are in fact not safe as long as the offenders are free to offend again.

In addition, constant training and resources for police and health professionals are needed to better identify cases of violence and provide women with adequate help and care.

Likewise, the number of women’s shelters must be increased and their funding shielded from public spending cuts which risk exposing thousands of victims to new or repeated cases of violence. States should also team up and support their national human rights institutions, women’s rights defenders and non-governmental organisations working for the protection and empowerment of women.

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.

There is no excuse to delay these actions. European governments, parliaments and judiciaries must become more sensitive towards women’s rights and put an end to this unbearable injustice. Ensuring women’s safety must be among Europe’s top priorities.

Nils Muižnieks