According to the best-available figures, as many as one in four women experience physical violence at the hands of men at least once in their lifetime.
Think about this while you are looking down a crowded metro train or shopping street and the statistic seems overwhelming. Campaigners insist it is right. “Almost everyone knows someone who has had some experience of violence so I don’t think it is so surprising after all,” says Pirjo Pehkonen, director of Women’s Line in Finland, an organisation that helps and supports women who have experienced violence, as well as their family and friends.
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As a new generation of female politicians have come to power, violence against women has gone from being a hidden domestic problem, often swept under the carpet, to a priority for European governments. Although the European Union has limited powers in this area, it was only a matter of time before it came on the EU’s agenda.
Credit for this goes to a determined band of (mostly) female lobbyists and EU member states, who have pushed governments to live up to declarations that they have signed at numerous international meetings over the past 15 years. But by an accident of timing the EU has had two consecutive presidencies of the Council of Ministers – Sweden and Spain – that take the issue very seriously and have called for greater EU co-ordinated action against all forms of gender-based violence. Less coincidentally, these governments are among the most gender-balanced in the EU.
Bibiana Aído, Spain’s equality minister, tells European Voice that EU countries need to share ideas on combating violence against women, as well as agreeing on joint policies. But she wants more than a ritual exchange of best practice: countries should also discuss a common approach to the prosecution of violence against women, she says. Under the guidance of Spain, EU ministers recently agreed to examine standardising their domestic laws on violence against women.
There is little details at this stage about what a common EU law would look like, as ministers await further input from the European Commission. But womens’ rights campaigners have clear ideas. Colette De Troy, director of the European Women’s Lobby, an umbrella group for womens’ rights organisations, would like an EU directive with minimum sanctions for all kinds of violence against women, from domestic violence to female genital mutilation. “We would like to see a comprehensive framework to focus on prevention, protection and sanctions,” De Troy says.
If this became a reality, this would be a big departure for EU gender-related law, which to date has covered equal treatment to work, welfare and access to goods and services.
There are many technical and political obstacles to be overcome. Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, is preparing a study on harmonising national laws to be published in September. Reding recently said that she does not exclude a harmonised definition of a criminal offence and sanctions for female genital mutilation.
Beyond the obvious sensitivities when criminal law is involved, any proposal would have to reconcile differences between national legal systems. In some legal systems, for example those of the Scandinavian countries, violence against women is treated as discrimination on gender grounds. For other legal systems, it is framed as a family problem. Countries also collect and categorise data in different ways.
While policymakers are trying to iron out these differences of legal approach, campaigners argue for EU action. Malgorzata Tarasiewicz, executive director of the Network of East-West Women in Poland, criticises the gap between policy and practice in her home country. “On paper we have good provision, but it is not implemented either because of lack of funding, organisation or understanding of how the issue should be addressed,” she says. Poland passed a law on domestic violence in 2005, obliging local authorities to run shelters for victims and to train the police. But Tarasiewicz believes that local governments are not doing their job properly, especially since the economic downturn. “Local government is poor, especially in a time of financial crisis, and there is no money for implementation,” she says.
Tarasiewicz says she would welcome a push from the EU to support the efforts of Polish campaigners. “Whatever comes from the EU is seen as important and progressive, [but]… there is not enough pressure from the EU and the government is not giving it enough attention,” she says.
The problems of indifferent governments and a lack of money are echoed by Pehkonen. “We have nice programmes on paper, but implementing them is another thing.” Pehkonen has found that influences outside Finland can be influential in making this policy area a greater priority for national politicians, but ranks the United Nations and the Council of Europe as more significant players than the EU. But current discussion suggests that this state of affairs could change.