Why can’t we wake up to violence against women?
On any given day, one in five women in Europe will be suffering either physical or psychological violence. So says the Council of Europe. These women are variously raped, mutilated, harassed, trafficked, beaten, enslaved or killed. The European Union has recognised its duty to prevent this human rights violation but, as matters stand, is sorely lacking vision and direction.
In 2010, the European Commission’s President José Manuel Barroso and Viviane Reding, Justice & Fundamental Rights Commissioner, committed themselves to setting up “a comprehensive and effective policy framework to combat gender-based violence”. They promised to bolster attempts to end female genital mutilation, which, according to the European Parliament, has left long-term physical and psychological scars on half a million women around Europe. Another 180,000 girls and women are at risk annually.
The Commission also planned to adopt a strategy to tackle violence against women, which was to have been delivered in 2011. However, more than two years later, there’s still no sign of this. What’s more, women’s rights NGOs are under increasing financial pressure. And the EU funds which supported these projects are losing their focus on violence against women. Nevertheless, Europe’s responsibility to protect people’s fundamental rights remains. The price of preventing violence against women can’t be dictated by economic constraints. These rights are guaranteed by international law. Governments are obliged to protect them. And the EU’s failure to act decisively is daily putting women and girls in jeopardy.
The Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner believes cut-backs on protecting women’s rights won’t save money. He rightly says that the socio-economic costs of violence against women are less evident but no less real. Europe must wake up to this reality.
It’s true the EU hasn’t entirely ignored this issue, but it’s all been rather piecemeal. The victims’ rights directive adopted last month obliges EU countries to provide special services for victims of violence. The European protection order ensures that victims of crime who are granted protection from their aggressors receive the same protection if they move to another EU country. While these measures might make it easier for women to seek justice and might protect them from further violence, it doesn’t prevent the initial violence. Shouldn’t we prevent women from becoming victims in the first place?
While there is limited movement on this issue, the EU is really only sleep-walking at present. The only realistic solution would have to combine prevention, protection and prosecution. By investing in targeted, continuous and accessible prevention measures and tackling all forms of violence, we can eventually reduce violence. This would also reduce the judicial, health care and social costs that violence against women brings.
One path to a comprehensive approach would be through the Council of Europe’s convention on preventing and combating violence against women. This comprehensive instrument provides measures to prevent violence, protect women and girls and ensure offenders are prosecuted. All 47 Council of Europe members agreed on this convention. Now they must again show consensus by signing and ratifying this instrument. As I write, fifteen EU countries have signed it, but none has yet ratified it. What’s more, the EU as a legal entity ought also to sign and ratify it to demonstrate its continuing commitment to fighting violence against women comprehensively. Two years ago, the College of Commissioners made a promise to women across Europe. It’s their responsibility to deliver on this promise by demonstrating clear direction and purpose.
Nicolas Beger, Director, Amnesty International European Institutions Office