by Maciej Kmita

When populists complain of a bad, liberal Europe that had lost all its values and abandoned the Christian core of its existence, they mostly point to the issues of migration and ubiquitous bureaucracy. Perhaps a crisis of values does actually exist – yet in a completely different area. It is worth recalling an extremely fundamental question: counteracting violence against women is for some a “leftist” cause. But can there be anything more Christian than charity and respect for one’s neighbour?

First, let us refer to the mentality of the official institutions and let’s see how much more is still to be done. 2014, Hungary on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

Vas’s police department publishes a shocking film in which it warns that young women who flirt with men “often provoke violence”. Just a few days earlier, another Hungarian broadcast suggests that women are partly responsible for sexual assault. “You can do something about it, you can do something about it” is the film’s central slogan.

It is hard to believe that this is the twenty-first century at the centre of Europe, in a country governed by a Christian-democratic party of the centre-right. Unfortunately, this is probably a reflection of the mentality shared by a significant part of our European society.

2015, Poland. The Civic Platform (PO – EPP) government ratifies the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. Poland is the seventeenth country to do so. Opposition politicians of the Law and Justice (PiS – ECR) protest. They condemn the convention at the Constitutional Tribunal, a bucket of dirty water is poured out over the convention. “This is a fight against the present civilization,” “The anti-smuggling convention is a blow to the Polish family” – the politicians claim.

2016. Law and Justice governs the country. The Minister of Justice prepares a draft request for the repeal of the Convention. The head of the Prime Minister’s office states that “gender equality is heresy”. Later that same year, the Polish government cuts its funding for the Centre for Women’s Rights which runs an emergency phone line for victims of violence. The reason behind this step? “They only offer support to disadvantaged women” – and not to disadvantaged men as well that is.

How serious is violence against women? In 2014, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights published a study on violence against women on our continent, to draw attention to this phenomenon within the EU and to inform and support the legislative and policy process.

According to this research, about 5% of European women have been raped. As many as one in three women have experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of fifteen. It has been estimated that in the 12-month period preceding the survey, as many as 13 million European women had suffered physical abuse and sexual violence – that is 3.7 million. 22% of women have experienced violence from their partner.

Which countries are most affected by this problem? Denmark, where 53% of women were exposed to violence by a partner or another person, ranks highest on the Agency’s survey. It is followed by Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, and the United Kingdom. Hungary in turn ranks half way on the table. When it comes to psychological violence in relationships, the worst rates have been recorded for Denmark and Latvia, where the more than 60% of women have suffered from such abuse.

In Sweden, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Estonia more than half of the women surveyed stated that they had been exposed to psychological violence by a partner. As many as 23% of European women encounter such abuse in their current, ongoing partnerships. It is also important to look at the phenomenon of sexual harassment, which has affected up to 102 million women in Europe, and even 39 million in the year before the survey (a large European Union population). Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands rank first on this list.

Most alarming of all however is the reaction to such violence: only one third of those suffering violence at the hand of a partner and only a quarter of those abused by people outside of a relationship decided to go to the police or ask for help from a qualified body after the most serious incident of violence against them. The most common reason for not reporting such cases is a feeling of shame.

Women indicate that psychological support and casual talk (up to 54% of women) and protection (up to 25% depending on the form of violence experienced by the respondents) is what they most direly need when confronted with abuse.

It is noteworthy that violence against women appears to most stringently affect countries generally seen to be the most progressive and respecting of women’s rights. This if ever shows how serious the problem remains and how much there still is to be done to tackle violence against women.

However, one ought not to jump to conclusions too quickly: high rates of violence in Northern and Central European countries may not be so much indicative of a problem of greater magnitude than elsewhere on the continent, but of a greater social awareness that allows for such incidents to be discussed more openly. In conservative societies, such as in Poland and Hungary, violence against women is still a taboo topic.

Undoubtedly irresponsible politicians and soulless institutions have a major impact on this.

The most important, however, is what recommendations are included in the report. The key is that “the recognition of violence against women as a violation of fundamental rights in the EU framework for responding to crime and victimisation by crime” should be ensured and this should be the starting point for any further discussion. Detailed national plans for counteracting violence against women are also important. Unfortunately, as the examples in Poland and Hungary cited at the beginning of this piece show, some countries still do not see the importance of the problem.

As the report states, “the EU should ensure that funding mechanisms for further DAPHNE work and other programmes that contribute to varying degrees of protection of children, young people and women from various forms of violence can be used to provide additional support. Support for research and work by civil society organisations dealing with the phenomenon of violence against women”.

The most optimistic are the plans of the European Commission which suggest that at last attitudes are changing. The Commissioner for Justice, Consumer Rights, and Gender Equality announced that in 2017 alone, the EU will allocate 4 million euros to the development of education and information campaigns on violence in the Member States. The European Commission also wants to motivate member states to allocate some of their money from European Regional Development Funds to build victim centres.

Tens of millions of euros go to supporting non-governmental organisations and humanitarian projects. In 2016, 3.4 million Europeans have benefited from projects funded by the European Union. It turns out that the issue of violence also hurts us economically. It has been calculated that, due to the effects of such phenomena, the EU economy loses up to 226 billion a year.

Something was and is needed to be done to fight against violence against women. The European Union has recognised the importance of the problem, and the Member States are increasingly fighting it in the public space. Maybe this means that the abuse of women is at last seen as a major challenge that needs to be addressed in order to tackle the crisis of values faced within the European Union. Public awareness is certainly the first important step.

25 May 2017
This text was published in Bullseye issue 68