This year has come into force the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence of the Council of Europe which has the potential of being a solid instrument in the fight against this phenomenon. It is the first binding instrument which recognize violence against women (VAW) as a violation of fundamental rights. The 25th of November was the International day for the elimination of violence against women and the European Parliament discussed this issue with the Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality.

VAW is an old issue but only recently it has become of public interest. Traditionally it was considered a private matter where the State could not and did not want to intervene. Things have changed now but it takes a really long time to change mentality and culture. Istanbul Convention acknowledges this and provides that:

“Parties shall take the necessary measures to promote changes in the social and cultural patterns of behaviour of women and men with a view to eradicating prejudices, customs, traditions and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority of women or on stereotyped roles for women and men” (Art. 12.1)

It introduces criminal offences, such as: female genital mutilation, stalking, forced marriage, forced abortion, forced sterilization. This Convention envisages a holistic approach to tackle the phenomenon as it aims at preventing violence, protecting victims, prosecuting perpetrators and changing society. It also requires ministries, state agencies and NGOs to act in a coordinated way.

Mr. José Mendes Bota, Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women of the Council of Europe in 2013 declared that this convention is not perfect but it is a good one and it is considered the “gold standard” for protection from violence. Now the problem is that of convincing States to ratify it. There are 6 members of the EU (Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Ireland and Latvia) which did have not even signed it and only 8 countries (Austria, Denmark, France, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Spain and Sweden) ratified it.

The European Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) made a survey in order to assess the situation in EU by interviewing 42,000 women across all 28 EU Member States. The findings were shocking: 8% of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in the last 12 months before the survey interview, and one in three women has experienced some form of physical and/or sexual assault since the age of 15. Underreporting to authorities is one of the biggest challenges. Women victims of violence feel ashamed or even guilty for what happened and they do not trust authorities. This is not surprising, since the police does not always register complaints when women find the courage to denounce perpetrators. Then lawyers tend to find an agreement before arriving to court because they know that there are very little chances to get a conviction. The result is that perpetrator is free to walk away with the only obligation of following some rehabilitation programme.

The 25th of November was the International day for the elimination of violence against women. The European Parliament held a hearing on this issue with the Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, Vĕra Jourová. She acknowledged that violence against women is one of the most serious human rights violation of our time. Ms. Jourová mentioned also the economic cost for societies of VAW which is estimated at 69 billion euros per year. She announced that the Commission’s Strategy for Equality between Men and Women for 2015 will include a chapter on VAW but this still needs to be discussed within the Commission.

She also declared that fight against VAW has to be articulated in different pillars, such as legislation, awareness raising, funding and knowledge based on data collection. Ms. Jourová remembered that at EU level there is a coherent legal framework to tackle VAW which includes Equal Treatment Directive and its provisions on sexual harassment, the Directive on Trafficking in Human Beings, Directive against Sexual Abuse and Sexual Exploitation of Children and Child Pornography, Directive on European Protection Order applicable in criminal matters, Regulation setting European Protection Order covering the civil matters, the Directive on the Rights of Crime Victims. According to her, the EU should better use the available instruments instead of adopting new ones, although she did not completely exclude the possibility of a directive in this field when she declared that “The necessity of adopting new legislation can be one of the results of the new strategy on equality between men and women.”

Several Members of the Parliament asked for an EU directive on VAW, the establishment of an European Observatory on VAW and also to propose the year 2016 as the European Year on VAW. The Commissioner for Gender Equality seemed reluctant towards the idea of establishing an European Observatory on VAW but she agreed upon pushing for EU’s accession to Istanbul Convention. Ms. Jourová replied that if she promised a directive now, this would be an excuse for MS to wait for it and avoid acting now.

She stressed the necessity for permanent campaigns on this issue and also the need to stop the abuse of women by the commercial sector which treats women as commodities. In the end she admitted that she herself was victim of violence and felt ashamed. Her coming out had the purpose of underlining that women should be the first who must change their attitude and not feeling ashamed or guilty. Perpetrators are the ones who should feel like that.

Although we do not question the Commissioner’s commitment towards fighting this phenomenon, she appeared a bit shy on the issues at stake. Probably it depends of the awareness that such a directive would not have the approval of some MS or some political groups as it happened to many proposals in the field of gender equality, namely the Maternity Leave Directive and Women on Boards Directive which are still stuck in the Council without the certainty of ever seeing the light. According to a document by BusinessEurope addressed to Mr. Timmermans, Vice President of the Commission in charge of Better Regulation, Inter-Institutional Relations and Fundamental Rights, these proposals should be withdrawn because they damage the competitiveness of European companies.

At the end of the day the conclusion is that VAW is still rooted in our societies and it will take time and efforts to change that, since we need to change our culture. There have been many achievements and they really make the difference so the important thing is to never give up.

(Ana Daniela Sanda)

To know more:

     -. Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence of the Council of Europe http://conventions.coe.int/Treaty/EN/Treaties/html/210.htm

     -. FRA survey on VAW, March 2014 http://fra.europa.eu/en/publication/2014/vaw-survey-main-results

     -. EurActiv article « Gender equality and environment laws on business lobby hit list » http://www.euractiv.com/sections/social-europe-jobs/gender-equality

     -. Joint Statement on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, 25 November 2014 http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_STATEMENT-14-2081_en.htm