Beyond #metoo: We need to tackle violence against women and girls

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Members of the All India Mahila Samskrutika Sanghatane (AIMSS) and students from different colleges hold placards and shout slogans after attending the '#MeToo' convention demanding the Security and Protect The Dignity of Women, in Bangalore, India, 25 October 2018. [Jagadeesh NV/EPA/EFE]

Women and girls in South-Eastern and Eastern Europe live in danger. This is what a new survey published by the OSCE just ahead of this International Women’s Day tells us, says OSCE’s Thomas Greminger upon publication of the new report.

Greminger is Secretary General of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

The survey is based on interviews with more than 15,000 women living in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Moldova and Ukraine. Seven in 10 women interviewed said they had experienced some form of violence since they had turned 15. For three out of every 10, this took the form of direct physical or sexual violence. And almost half of them reported having been subjected to some form of sexual harassment.

These figures are shocking. Violence against women and girls is a persistent human rights violation that has a lasting impact on their health and well-being as well as that of their children, communities and society at large. While women’s rights have gained prominence on the global agenda, particularly as a result of the#metoo campaign, a worrying number of women and girls in these parts of Europe, which have all witnessed conflict in the not so distant past, have been and continue to be abused, mistreated, and hurt.

But violence against women is not only a phenomenon of South-Eastern and Eastern Europe. A similar survey conducted by the European Union in 2012 revealed figures that were not that different from those found in 2018. Mind-sets are changing, the consideration of sexual violence as a purely private matter is, thankfully, being denounced as inacceptable and more and more countries are committing to policies to ensure the safety of women. But it is happening too slowly and too unevenly across our continent.

The survey we conducted is key to providing the data needed to fulfil these commitments. Face-to-face interviews with 15,179 women reveal that beliefs in female subservience and marital obedience continue to persist in South-Eastern and Eastern Europe. Women who hold these beliefs are more likely to experience violence themselves. And there are other factors that make it more likely for women to be subjected to violence: being part of a minority, being poor or economically dependent, or having children, for example. Unsurprisingly, women with partners who often drink, are unemployed or were involved in armed conflict are also more likely to experience violence.

A troubling observation revealed by the survey is the silence that accompanies these acts of violence. The vast majority of incidents are not reported to the police or other victim support organizations. Over 80 per cent of women said that they did not report violence by their partner, and over 50 per cent did not report non-partner violence to the authorities. Attitudes silencing women and protecting abusers, a culture of shaming, as well as the lack of trust by women in the authorities that have the duty to protect them, are all to blame.

This year’s International Women’s Day will again be an opportunity to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women across the globe. The 2019 theme is #BalanceForBetter, meaning the better the gender balance, the better the world will be. However, our survey shows that gender imbalance, and the direct impact it is having on our societies, still requires our urgent attention.

Preventing and combating violence against women is at the nexus of human rights and human security. It is therefore an important area of work for the OSCE. Not only because of the personal trauma violence against women causes, but also because it prevents half of a country’s population to be full, equal and effective participants in political, economic and public life.

Change cannot happen in a secretive atmosphere. Action is based on knowledge and awareness, which requires creating an environment where women and girls feel safe to discuss their traumatic experiences of violence, and where the perpetrators will be held to account. That is why this survey is such an important step forward. It shows the women affected that they are not alone and it helps them, their families and communities and the whole of society to recognize the scale of the problem. The authorities in the regions surveyed must now use the survey to effectively update and implement legislation to cover all forms of violence against women and girls, and to put into place preventative measures and efficient frameworks to better protect victims. And we, the international community, must make sure that we give women and girls living in these regions the attention and support they deserve.

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