Does gender equality trigger gender violence? A controversial new report suggests that certain EU nations might be experiencing a backlashby Serena Kutchinsky / March 21, 2014 / Leave a comment
What is gender violence? When does aggressive behaviour become unacceptable? Is it when a door slams in someone’s face; a push turns into a shove; a gesture spirals into a slap; banter becomes abuse; “no” is taken to mean “yes”? On paper we know the answers but in reality the distinctions are still deeply blurred.
The question played on my mind earlier this month as I sat in the sterile surrounds of the European Parliament in Brussels, listening to new research which exposes the shocking scale of gender violence in modern Europe. Compiled by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), who interviewed 42,000 women from 28 member states, it revealed that one in three women has been either physically or sexually abused (8 per cent in the last 12 months).
I have always believed that the closer we come to a gender equal society, the less gender violence there will naturally be. The coverage of this emotive issue in the western media confirms this view—it is typecast as endemic to other parts of the world. We hear much of the traumas of women in conflict-ravaged countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Sudan, but there appears to almost be a vow of silence in reporting cases closer to home. This report shatters those cosy preconceptions about our supposedly civilised society, revealing for the first time the scale of this human rights abuse across Europe and highlighting the fact that it typically goes unreported and undetected by the authorities.
A deluge of cold, hard facts, reeled off by a faceless Eurowonk in pinstripes, highlighted how deeply embedded gender violence is in modern society and how it continues to evolve in the digital age. Among the eye-opening findings were the fact that one in 10 women in the EU has experienced sexual violence; 1 in 20 has been raped; 55 per cent have been sexually harassed and 43 per cent have faced psychological abuse. There was also a rise in cyber harassment with 20 per cent of young women aged 18-29 suffering from it, and 11 per cent of women experiencing inappropriate advances via social networks or text messages. The final fact is possibly the most crucial—only 14 per cent of victims across Europe have reported the incident to the police.
Analysis of these statistics which tell of devastating levels of human suffering and heartbreak, produced some troubling patterns—countries with the highest levels of gender equality reported the highest levels of gender violence. The supposedly liberal Nordic nations came out the worst with Denmark (52 per cent), Finland (47 per cent) and Sweden (46 per cent). The UK fared little better coming in fifth. Women in Poland (19 per cent), Austria (20 per cent) and Greece (21 per cent) recorded the lowest levels of abuse. These results were obtained by asking the same set of questions to women, who all answered anonymously and were all interviewed individually in their homes. This geographical bombshell cuts through the grim fog and presents us with a worrying scenario. Is violence a by-product of equality?
Initially, I was reluctant to take these figures at face value, refusing to acknowledge that this might be the result of an equality backlash. Surely, these statistics were due to women in forward-thinking EU nations being more aware of what constitutes abuse and living in societies where these crimes are more commonly identified and reported? But, says Blanca Tapia, the spokesperson for the FRA, that is not the whole story; “I’m not surprised by the data… It’s true that women in these countries with high levels of reported abuse feel more equal, and might be more confortable speaking out, but they are also more financially independent, earn more money and occupy more senior managerial positions than their male counterparts. Some men don’t cope well with this gender role reversal—they feel threatened and it makes them lash out. In countries like the UK where there is a binge drinking culture that also fuels violence.”
Once you consider that women in countries with high levels of gender equality are more likely to socialise and work outside of home—potentially placing themselves in more vulnerable situations when drunk, it seems logical that the risk of an attack from a partner, friend or stranger is also increased. There is also the consideration that in a more integrated society, men—who are more traditionally used to settling disputes in an aggressive, testosterone-fuelled fashion—cease differentiating between the genders and forget to apply restraint when dealing with women they consider to be their equal. As uncomfortable as these conclusions make us, there is clearly an urgent need to address them both in terms of legislation and social awareness. What can be done to alter male attitudes and better protect women?
“This report shows that Britain ranks among the worst countries in Europe when it comes to women being violently abused—a shameful accolade,” says Sandra Horley CBE, chief executive of national domestic violence charity Refuge. “Every week in the UK two women are killed by current or former partners, and every day our refuges are full to bursting. The truth is we are living in a war zone. Violence against women takes casualties on a massive scale.”
If we discount locking ourselves away at home in solitary confinement as a possible response, then modern women have to face the sobering reality that we’re not really safe anywhere—not at home, on the streets and certainly not at work (75 per cent of women in managerial positions have suffered sexual harassment at work). At the post-briefing drinks, several aghast Swedish journalists were desperately trying to downplay their nation’s dismal showing by pointing out their pioneering childcare provision and shared parental leave. The Nordic countries have always been seen as utopian models of gender equality, yet clearly sexism still perpetuates in those countries, as well as in our own.
“There is a culture of silence,” says Blanca Tapia. “Too many women don’t report it because they feel that somehow it’s their fault; maybe their skirt was too short, maybe they provoked the guy to utter those words. Sexism should be as frowned upon in today’s society as racism now is. You never see a black man blaming himself and apologising for being black. It’s absurd that women should feel this way… We were not put on this earth to turn men on.”
More women need to be encouraged to come forward and report their experiences of discrimination and violence. There needs to be increased awareness of women’s rights and improved sensitivity in the handling of these delicate cases. There also needs to be a new focus on men and an increase in the number of programmes designed to re-educate those who perpetrate violence against women. Currently there are only a handful of such specialised schemes around the country. Men can self-refer or be asked to attend, normally as a condition of probation or by the family courts. The majority are therapy-based programmes and are accredited to Respect, the UK’s biggest domestic abuse charity. It’s a welcome innovation but more needs to be done to combat social stigmas.
“Currently a lot of the focus at the EU political level is on things like female genital mutilation, forced marriages and trafficking in women and girls for sexual exploitation,” said the FRA’s head of research Joanna Goodey. “If this were happening outside the European Union and these figures were for another part of the world, we’d expect EU leaders to say ‘this is a call for action, this is unacceptable.'”
There is a glimmer of hope. The report recommends that EU countries ratify the Council of Europe’s convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (the Istanbul Convention), draw up action plans to tackle violence against women, and ensure that police, doctors, employers and others are equipped to help women victims of violence. Campaigners are also calling for psychological abuse to be outlawed in a bid to protect victims of domestic violence. “It is possible for the law to criminalise a course of conduct and move beyond physical injury,” Laura Richards, director of stalking advice service Paladin told The Independent.
The UK signed the Istanbul Convention in 2011, but has yet to follow through on ratifying it. Sandra Horley is among those frustrated by the delay saying; “Enough is enough. I urge the Prime Minister to ratify the Istanbul Convention without delay, and to put in place robust measures to ensure that women and children are given the most basic of all human rights—the right to live in safety.”
The cynical view is that the government has dragged its heels because it was keen to avoid making the extra investment in gender-specific services necessary to meet the minimum standards laid out in the Convention. In February, a petition was presented to Downing Street by the TUC and the charity Women’s Aid which called on the government to ratify the Convention as a matter of urgency. The TUC claim that between 2010/11 and 2011/12 the domestic and sexual violence sector saw funding cuts of 31 per cent. Does this, combined with the delays over following through on the Convention, signal a drop in the government’s commitment to combatting violence against women?
The Home Office staunchly deny that assumption, and are keen to point out the positive steps they have taken to improve the treatment of gender violence victims by the authorities. They state that they have every intention of ratifying the Istanbul Convention this summer after legislation making forced marriage a criminal offence is passed. A spokesperson said; “We have some of the most robust legal protections in the world against violence towards women, and we already comply with the majority of the articles of the Istanbul Convention. Criminalisation of forced marriage is a critical component for compliance and, following royal assent to the Anti Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Bill, will come into effect in the summer.”
Commenting on the recommendations of the FRA’s report, Crime Prevention Minister Norman Baker said: “We are looking closely at the basis of these figures to ensure they are accurate, however any instance of violence is one too many. The Coalition Government has made significant progress in tackling violence against women and girls… We have announced the roll out of domestic violence protection orders, passed Clare’s Law [which allows people to find out from the police if their partner has a history of domestic abuse], and ring-fenced nearly £40 million of funding for specialist local support services and national helplines to support people in abusive situations.”
So, what do these policy promises, statistics and unratified treaties add up to? How do they translate into human experience? As women we need to be clear in our own minds that any form of physical, psychological or sexual abuse is wrong. We need to fight against any feelings of shame or guilt that a partner’s, or a stranger’s, actions might induce and be prepared to be brave, bold and ready for battle. Until we fully address the deep-rooted sexism in our society and affect lasting change, gender violence will always be with us.