States should do more to protect women from violence

Human Rights Comment
Strasbourg 09/10/2012
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States should do more to protect women from violence

Around the world – and indeed across Europe – women are beaten and threatened. Domestic violence is the most common form of abuse of women worldwide, irrespective of economics, religion or culture.

There is a strange acceptance of the prevalence of domestic violence and violence against women in every country. Far too often the problem is pushed aside, and far too often the woman herself is blamed. The question “why doesn´t she leave?” seems more frequently asked than “why does he hit her?”

A very common crime

One-fifth to one-quarter of all women in the Council of Europe member states are estimated to have experienced physical violence at least once during their adult lives, and more than one-tenth have suffered sexual violence involving the use of force. Figures for all forms of violence, including stalking, are as high as 45%. The majority of these acts are carried out by men in the women’s immediate social environment, most often by partners and ex-partners.

Every year approximately 3 500 deaths related to intimate partner violence occur in the 27 member states of the European Union alone, according to a study from the EU programme DAPHNE.

One chilling figure was presented by the government of the United Kingdom on 8 March this year: ”In the last year alone, there were over 1 million female victims of domestic abuse in England and Wales.” That day the UK launched an updated National Action Plan with 100 actions to “tackle all aspects of violence against women and girls”.

What needs to be done

Today the vast majority of the 47 Council of Europe member states have a national action plan to protect women from violence. Those states that do not, should work to create one as soon as possible.

The action plan should, among other things, include:

  • · Awareness raising activities
  • · Victim support services
  • · Well-trained law enforcement
  • · Cooperation with civil society

Much of the work, such as running shelters, is typically carried out by non-governmental groups. The authorities have a responsibility to assist. It is also important that staff at health clinics and police officers – the first services to come into contact with victims – are well trained to recognise the signs of domestic violence and to give gender sensitive support.

Awareness of the particular vulnerability of migrant women is of special importance. A migrant woman is less likely to report an incident to the police for fear of losing her residence status – especially when her status is dependent on that of her husband.

During a visit to Finland I was informed that the likelihood that a woman will fall victim to domestic violence in that country was more than double the European Union average. To fight this violence a cross-sectoral National Action Plan has been introduced.

The Istanbul Convention – an important tool

All member states should ratify and implement the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (The Istanbul Convention).

The Convention, which was adopted in April 2011, is a practical tool, which requires a wide range of measures. It is governed by the “Three P’s Principle”: Prevention, Protection and Prosecution.

Sadly, so far only Turkey has ratified this convention. 23 Council of Europe member states have signed it. Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Poland have announced that signature or ratification will take place soon. It would be good if the remaining signatories ratified soon as well.

Cut-backs will not save money

Combating violence against women is costly – but not addressing gender-based violence costs even more. Direct and indirect costs are usually born by the victims, employers, the healthcare system and society at large – and thus the taxpayers. In times of crisis and austerity it is important to be aware that the socio-economic costs connected to violence against women might be less evident, but not less real – and that cut-backs in this area should be avoided.

Zero tolerance

States must treat violence against women as a gender-based human rights violation, which reflects persisting inequality between women and men. The figures tell of psychological, physical and even lethal abuse, sometimes over long periods of time. The only possible stance is zero tolerance. Action needs to be taken by both central and local governments in Europe as a whole. Now.

Nils Muižnieks