Further worsened by the pandemic, this crime must come to an end.
Violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread, persistent, and devastating human rights violations in our world today and the most common violation of women’s human rights in Europe. According to UN Women, 1 in 3 women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence in the course of their life. Women and girls are disproportionately subjected to violence, including murder, sexual violence perpetrated by partners as well as non-partners, and trafficking. Sexual violence includes rape, forced sexual acts, unwanted sexual advances, child sexual abuse, forced marriage, street harassment, stalking, and cyber-harassment.
Worldwide, 137 women are killed by a member of their family every day.
Violence against women also occurs in psychological forms such as intimidation, coercion, emotional abuse, financial control, workplace harassment, and bullying. The large majority of incidents of violence against women do not come to the attention of the police. It is estimated that only around 30% of victims of violence report the most serious incidents to the police. One in four women who do not report sexual violence to the police chooses not to do so because of shame; one in five does not want anyone to know, one in ten believes that the police could not or would not do anything.
Despite years of advocacy to protect women’s physical integrity, legislative progress has been disappointingly slow. Only two out of three countries have outlawed domestic violence, while 37 countries worldwide still exempt rape perpetrators from prosecution if they are married to the victim, and 49 countries currently have no laws protecting women from domestic violence. Across OECD countries, only 14 countries protect women from violence without any legal exception. In 16 OECD countries, survivors of violence still face legal obstacles — in 4 of those countries, domestic violence is not a criminal offense; while in 11 countries of them, sexual harassment is punished but not with criminal penalties.
Violence against women is not only devastating for the victims and their families. It also entails significant social and economic costs. According to the World Bank, in some countries, violence against women is estimated to cost countries up to 3.7% of their GDP — more than double what most governments spend on education. Gender-based violence knows no social or economic boundaries and it affects women and girls of all socio-economic backgrounds in both developing and developed countries. Across OECD countries, 22% of women report having experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetimes, with more than 4% of women have experienced intimate partner violence in the past year.
Violence towards women and COVID-19.
Under confined living conditions, levels of domestic violence have been skyrocketing. In some countries, reported cases have doubled. COVID-19 has also heightened pressure around finances, health, and security leading women to be more vulnerable to instability and violence at home. The crime of ‘revenge porn’ has also seen an increase. The UN have named violence against women during COVID-19 as the ‘Shadow pandemic’.
In France, reports of domestic violence have increased by 30% since March 2020. In Cyprus and Singapore, helplines have registered an increase in calls by 39% and 33%, respectively. In Argentina, emergency calls for domestic violence cases have increased by 25% since March 20th. Increased cases of domestic violence have also been reported in Canada, Germany, Spain, the UK, and the United States. In Italy, the Director of the Observatory on Support to Victims of Domestic Violence has recently called for reinforced psychological assistance for people affected by mental health issues caused by the pandemic (acute stress syndrome, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and depression) as these issues are usually found in perpetrators of domestic violence.
What are the causes of violence against women?
The Council of Europe has identified four sets of factors leading to violence against women:
1. Cultural factors. These factors are related to the patriarchal and sexist views which legitimize violence to ensure the dominance and superiority of men. It also includes religious and historical traditions which, under the umbrella of the “ownership of women”, legitimizes control over women’s sexuality, deemed essential to ensure patrilineal inheritance. Sexuality is also tied to the concept of ‘family honor’ in many cultures.
2. Legal factors. In many societies, women are still considered guilty of attracting violence against themselves through their behavior, which then leads to lower levels of reporting and investigation even if gender-based violence is criminalized in many countries.
3. Economic factors. Women in relatively lower economic positions are more vulnerable to violence. When unemployment and poverty affect men, this can also cause them to assert their “masculinity” through violent means.
4. Political factors. The under-representation of women in power and politics means that they have fewer opportunities to influence policy and tackle violence more effectively.
Violence perpetrated on women is a complex issue, but according to White Ribbon Australia, it comes down to two primary drivers: an adherence to rigidly defined gender roles (what it means to be masculine or feminine), and the unequal distribution of power and resources between men and women. It follows that addressing these two societal dimensions should bring us to a significant reduction of the issue.
The ‘Istanbul Convention’
One attempt to address some of the cultural and legal factors has been the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe treaty that requires member states parties to “take the necessary legislative and other measures to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate, punish and provide reparation for” violence against women. It defines “violence against women” to include “all acts of gender-based violence that result in, or are likely to result in, physical, sexual, psychological, or economic harm, or suffering to women…whether occurring in public or in private life.”
The Istanbul Convention is the first-ever international legal framework created to combat violence against women. It outlines which acts must be criminalized by the participating countries. Such offences include psychological violence, stalking, physical violence, sexual violence, all non-consensual acts of a sexual nature with a person, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, forced abortion, and forced sterilization, honor crimes as well as sexual harassment.
One of the more significant points of criticism towards the Convention has been that it defines the term “gender” as “the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men”. Croatia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Turkey, the Czech Republic, and Hungary have all refused to ratify the Convention primarily due to this definition viewed as a way to challenge traditional gender models. They also object to the obligation to include teaching material on ‘non-stereotyped gender roles’.
As part of the Convention, an independent group of experts titled GREVIO (Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence) was tasked with monitoring the implementation of the Convention. In most countries, GREVIO found insufficient legislative measures and allocation of financial and human resources, indicating a “limited degree of commitment to the implementation of a comprehensive and coordinated approach to preventing and combating violence against women.”
Today, November 25th, marks 2020’s International Day against Violence on Women and Girls. First and foremost, the true power of this moment will lie in our ability to harness this global attention on the issue of gender-based violence to support the work of the grassroots activists, community-based organizations, journalists, academics, trade unions, NGOs, and social movements who have been active for a long time on this issue. For the next 16 days, activists worldwide will promote the UN-funded ‘Orange the World’ campaign. A number of similar campaigns are being run virtually in every country.
Secondly, we need to stop framing this as a “women’s issue” and we all need to feel responsible for the dismantlement of the system of patriarchy. Men should question and change their own thinking and actions, as well as that of other men. Women should stand for other women and help those in danger or those who have experienced violence.
Ensuring future generations are correctly educated on gender roles is pivotal to completely eliminating violence against women and girls. Prevention is the only way to stop violence before it even occurs. It requires political commitment, introducing and enforcing laws that promote gender equality, investing in women’s economic independence, and addressing the multiple forms of discrimination women face daily, including verbal and written communication. Proper advocacy, awareness-raising, community mobilization, and educational programs, along with legal and policy reforms, can change attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors in an impactful way.
Violence against women and girls is the most pervasive violation of human rights in the world today. Its forms are both subtle and blatant, and its impact on development profound. But it is so deeply embedded in cultures around the world that it is almost invisible. Yet this brutality is not inevitable. Once recognized for what it is — a construct of power and a means of maintaining the status quo — it can be dismantled.