Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality

“Domestic violence on the rise: according to the Council of Europe, the policies of isolation and confinement implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have led to increased levels of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, with women vastly more likely to be victims. What steps can the EU take to protect and provide solutions for those unsafe in their own homes?”

By Georgia Tritsini (GR) and Beatriz Cunha (PT)

Relevance of the topic

Is Europe having a domestic nightmare? The statistics would suggest so. In Spain, the domestic violence helpline received a 47% increase in calls in the first two weeks of April during lockdown compared with the same period of the previous year.  Meanwhile, Belgium’s listening service of the “Collective Against Family Violence and Exclusion” measured a three-fold increase in calls. Victims of domestic abuse are not only threatened physically, but also mentally, with research finding that women who have been abused by a partner are three times more likely to suffer mental ill health. Isolation and confinement have introduced an extra barrier for domestic violence victims in need of medical help, as they make fleeing from an abuser close to impossible. Additionally, violence poses a threat to children’s safety, security and stability. Societal apathy and indifference in regard to the extent of this issue is another “hidden” obstacle that needs to be tackled in the EU.
While progress has undoubtedly been made in the EU in regard to raising public awareness and giving women who suffer from violence more places to turn to, women in all Member States continue to suffer violence at the hands of abusive partners. Indifference to the issue will continue to cause serious social, economic and health consequences for women, their families and their communities. Issues closely related to the problem, such as victim blaming 1 and rape culture 2 need to be discussed more openly and on larger platforms in order to get closer to the root of the problem. This environment contributes to the low reporting and conviction rates for domestic and sexual violence, which further discourage victims to report such crimes, thus creating a vicious cycle. How can the European Union and its Member States work towards solving the issue of domestic abuse effectively whilst keeping in mind that it is a very time sensitive matter due to the ongoing COVID-19 measures?

Key actors

The European Commission is the executive branch of the European Union, responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding EU treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the EU.  The Commission plays an active role in the development, design and evaluation of the European Union’s overall strategy.  The EU does not currently have a specific binding instrument designed to protect women from violence, but it has established legal instruments to protect women from violence in specific areas, such as a ban on sexual harassment.
Another stakeholder fighting to combat domestic abuse towards women has been the Council of Europe. This organisation took action in the case of domestic abuse by introducing the Istanbul Convention 3, a convention dedicated to preventing and combating violence against women and domestic abuse. As of March 2019, it has been signed by 45 countries and the European Union. The Council of Europe’s general secretary Thorbjørn Jagland characterised it as a ‘top priority’ as ‘violence against women breaches basic human rights’.
Different EU Member States have followed different approaches to the issue of violence against women. Domestic physical violence and sexual violence are the main types of violence punishable by law, while domestic psychological violence, forced marriage, sexual harassment and FGM are punishable in different ways depending on the country. In recent years, Member States have developed policy strategies to combat violence against women, either in the form of national action plans on all kinds of violence, or by means of action plans targeting specific forms of violence. They have also incorporated measures into other action plans aimed for example at promoting gender equality and social inclusion. Some Member States, however, appear to be going backwards. Poland plans to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, signifying a great setback in gender equality and protection for women in the country.
Looking beyond the EU and its Member States’ governments, there are organisations such as the European Womens’ lobby (EWL). The EWL is a long-standing European-level non-governmental organisation (NGO) which, with the help of ambitious women, creates a positive impact on the public with the help of European Institutions and civil society partners. It works closely with the Council of Europe and the United Nations Economic and Social Council in consultative positions, and participates regularly in the activities of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). As the largest European umbrella network of women’s associations representing a total of more than 2000 organisations in 26 EU Member States, the movement has succeeded in combating domestic abuse through a variety of actions and initiatives, such as organising the ‘Week of Action to End Sexual Exploitation
Lastly, mass media and social networks may constitute a way of addressing domestic abuse towards women through various contexts, either by decreasing the social acceptability of abusive behaviour and gender inequality, or by increasing the willingness of victims and observers to speak up and report cases of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. For instance, the ‘OK’ social network hosted a broadcast for experts and others to discuss the consequences of lockdown, such as family conflict and gender-based violence. The broadcast was seen by 1.7 million users of the network across Eastern Europe and Central Asia. It drew the spotlight towards successful solutions around the world in responding to gender-based violence at home, such as the case of Spanish women who set an example by  using a code word in pharmacies to seek help and escape their abusers.

Key conflicts

According to an article published by the World Health Organisation (WHO), gaining a better understanding of public attitudes is increasingly recognised in international research as crucial in preventing intimate partner violence against women. With regard to domestic violence, one of the most relevant and influential public attitudes is that of victim blaming. The article highlights that victim blaming not only results in fewer victims reporting their experiences, but also makes observers (people who are not the victim but are aware of the crime) less likely to report known incidents of domestic violence. Victim blaming thus reinforces the isolation and vulnerability of victims, as observers do not become part of an informal social network that can help to keep the violence under control. Furthermore, research in Scotland showed that repeat domestic violence victims suffered psychologically and were socially excluded. In addition, victims often hid the true state of their mental health from family and friends, developing addiction issues and depression.  A European Commission public opinion survey found that more than one in five respondents (22%) believe that women often make up or exaggerate claims of abuse or rape, and more than one quarter (27%) think sexual intercourse without consent can be justifiable.
Victim blaming, rape culture, and the gender inequality which has engendered those issues all present monumental challenges in the campaign against domestic violence. For example, many abused women seem to love their partners despite their abusive actions and often fear they will have no support system outside of their relationships. According to the WHO, 1 in 3 women are survivors of sexual violence or intimate partner violence. For victims, it is a constant battle between the abuse itself and the emotional sense of dependence which abusers manipulate their victims into feeling towards them.

Image Source: European Institute for Gender Equality

From a legal perspective, there is a large gap between the response abuse victims’ experiences should receive and the responses they actually receive in reality from society and Member States’ legal systems. For instance, the refusal rate for people applying to stay in the UK after suffering domestic violence more than doubled between 2012 and 2016. Additionally, the issue of under-reporting  and low conviction rates constitutes another obstacle for victims seeking justice. According to European Institute for Gender Equality, only one in three women who are physically or sexually abused by their partner contact the authorities.
Lastly, the enforced isolation and lockdowns due to the COVID-19 crisis have raised new challenges for victims of abuse at home. An epidemic within a pandemic, domestic violence has risen alarmingly in Europe. The anxiety caused by health concerns and financial hardship related to the pandemic  has played an important role in the rise of reported cases, increasing tension in relationships. The UN entity characterised this phenomenon as the ‘shadow pandemic’.

Measures in place

In order to tackle the ongoing problem of gender-based domestic violence,  the Member States of the European Union have created detailed strategic plans in the hope of lowering the rates of domestic violence throughout Europe.  For example, France produced  the 3ʳᵈ International Strategy for Gender Equality (2018-2022), a powerful instrument created to coordinate the current situation of the issue. The strategy pertains to development assistance policies and outreach initiatives and is a steering tool designed to coordinate work over the 2018-2022 period and improve the situation of women around the world.
One step forward in tackling domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is the rise in popularity of social justice movements. Perhaps the best-known of these movements is the #MeToo movement, founded as a way to empower women who had endured sexual violence by letting them know that they were not alone. Due to its worldwide impact, Sweden passed a law on consent on the 1st July 2018, with which it became the tenth country in Europe to explicitly recognise any non-consented sexual act as rape. The Netherlands is following suit, with a proposal for a similar law currently being prepared.
One example of the EU’s strategy plan towards combating domestic abuse is the Daphne Programme, one of the building blocks of the European Commission‘s fight against violence. The programme’s goal is to contribute to the protection of children, young people and women against any form of abuse taking place both in the private and public domain, including sexual exploitation and human trafficking, by taking preventative measures and providing support and protection for victims and groups at risk. The Daphne Programme offers funding to NGOs for projects which fulfil the objectives of the Programme. It also provides a toolkit which includes project descriptions as well as reports, studies, tools and awareness-raising and training materials. The third incarnation of the Daphne Programme, Daphne III (2007-2013), had an average annual budget of 16.7 million euros.
The United Nations has taken action towards ending violence against women by creating a Trust Fund. Since 1996, the UN Trust Fund has donated 128 million USD to 462 initiatives in 139 countries and territories. Thanks to the Fund, the implementation of laws and strategy plans on domestic abuse has been more efficient, since data collection and analysis have been made possible.
The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) has designed an online mapping tool on administrative data sources, statistics and research based on domestic abuse. Building on such information will enable Member States to shape comprehensive  action plans to tackle the problem of domestic violence.

What now?

As European citizens, it is our duty to find an answer to these challenging questions:

– How can the European Union solve the raised key conflicts effectively whilst keeping in mind the issue’s time sensitivity and the victims’ vulnerable position, especially during the lockdown period caused by the COVID-19 pandemic?
– How can the European citizen raise awareness and contribute to the elimination of the problem both on a personal and national level?
– What approach(es) should the EU and its citizens take towards ending victim blaming and tackling rape culture?

Links for further research:

France fears fresh wave of domestic violence amid second Covid-19 lockdown – France 24
Domestic abuse surged in lockdown, Panorama investigation finds – The Guardian
Violence against women: an EU-wide survey; Results at a glance – European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights

  1. Victim blaming occurs when the victim of a crime or any wrongful act is told that they are responsible for the crime committed against them, and often occurs in the context of rape
  2. Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalised and excused in the media and popular culture.  Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorisation of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety
  3. The Istanbul Convention is a human rights treaty of the Council of Europe against the violence of women and domestic abuse which was opened for signature on 11 May 2011, in Istanbul, Turkey. The convention aims at prevention of violence, victim protection and to end the impunity of perpetrators. The Convention came into force on 1 August 2014