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A future free from violence

A future free from violence


Virginija Langbakk of the European Institute for Gender Equality talks about European efforts to combat gender-based violence.


Despite concerted efforts by member states in recent years – including positive steps this year such as the signing by the EU of the Istanbul Convention – gender-based violence remains prevalent throughout Europe. This type of violence and other forms of violence such as intimate partner or domestic violence is rooted in gender inequality. Over the past year, the EU has redoubled its efforts to combat this type of violence, which overwhelmingly affects women.

The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) is an independent body of the European Union, which was established to contribute to and support the promotion of gender equality. Within this remit, EIGE aims to support the EU and the member states to integrate a gendered perspective in all policies and resultant national policies alongside addressing gender and sex-based discrimination. Ultimately, the organisation aims to raise awareness and improve the status of gender equality among EU citizens.

In its role in combatting gender-based violence, EIGE collects and provides access to statistical information and aims to assist institutions and experts who are involved in preventing violence and supporting victims. Since 2010, EIGE has been working in the area of gender-based violence, collecting data and resources to assist in addressing the issue. EIGE has published several reports analysing the issue and the progress that has been made in tackling it. Virginija Langbakk, Director of EIGE, discussed the challenges, patterns and progress of the organisation’s work with PEN.

Many acts of gender-based violence still go unreported, which makes addressing the problem difficult. How can Europe support victims and encourage them to come forward?

Unreported, undisclosed violence is one of the main hindrances for accurately assessing the extent of gender-based violence, and for planning measures to combat the phenomenon. When EIGE studied the situation, we found that one reason people don’t come forward is that societal norms may create a victim-blaming attitude. A woman who is subjected to violence may not want to speak up, for fear that she may be blamed for it; people might suggest that she behaved improperly or even encouraged the reaction. Another idea which surrounds reporting of experiences of violence is social stigma – the victim may be concerned about losing respect, and subsequently their value and status. The issue is very personal and individualised.

Between 2010 and 2012, with the publication of the Eurobarometer – an analysis of the attitudes of the EU populations to the role of public institutions, police and justice, we analysed the data and correlated this with EIGE’s Gender Equality Index. We identified that the societies, which reported a higher incidence of violence, were also ones where gender equality was highest. Victims who trusted the justice system and the police were more likely to report that they had been subjected to violence because they believed that they would receive a response from those institutions. To further support the police and justice sectors EIGE is working on providing guidelines and recommendations to these authorities to enable them to improve their interventions with victims.

Those victims of violence who come forward to disclose need to know that they will receive safety and protection from the authorities, so another factor is providing specialised training to the officials who will receive the victim, report the incident and later prepare all the information for legal action. Often, authorities lack the appropriate training, or the victim may not have confidence in their handling of such incidences; this can result in people speaking up but not returning to pursue a legal case, or simply not disclosing at all.

In some instances, women who cannot speak the native language may not be aware that they have the right to be accompanied by somebody who can speak on their behalf. Under the 2012 European Parliament and European Council Directive establishing minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime, women have this right during encounters with institutions or criminal proceedings. In assisting victims during criminal proceedings, it is very important that victims are aware of their rights.

On analysing the survey carried out by the Fundamental Rights Agency around five years ago, we found that 2% of women who were victims of a form of gender-based violence did not wish to report it because they were afraid that they might lose custody of their children, or suffer other consequences. Some of these women do not have safe places to go or independent income; victims can potentially suffer with mental health complications or physical trauma as a result of violence, meaning that they cannot work. It is clear that a combination of this whole set of factors is why victims are often discouraged from disclosing violence.

Is there a reason why countries which have a better record on gender equality also see more reported cases of gender-based violence?

In these countries, it is evident that the number of reported and disclosed cases of violence are higher, but there is not necessarily more violence in those countries. In a survey by the Fundamental Rights Agency entitled Violence against women: an EU-wide survey, Denmark and the other Nordic countries were at the top with the highest reported incidences of violence. However, when we analysed further, we found that there was greater awareness of gender-based violence in these societies and greater investment in training and support services and thus easier for victims to receive support. There’s more funding for shelters and support services, and therefore victims are more likely to report incidents of gender-based violence.

In some countries, women have to suffer extreme physical or sexual violence in order to feel they can report it, whereas in more gender-equal societies, where women are aware of their rights, they understand that such behaviours are not to be tolerated in society. As a result, women in these societies may find it easier to report incidents and do so more readily. Consequently, when every incidence of violence is reported, these countries have a higher number of reported violence overall.

Despite these attempts at measuring gender-based violence, we do not know the real prevalence of violence. We are working with member states on agreeing definitions of different forms of violence to address this and create a more harmonised approach for data collection across Europe. Among the 28 member states, there is currently not a unified definition for many types of violence, including, for example, intimate partner violence. For example, Spain and Sweden have adopted intimate partner violence as a specific form of violence with a legal definition. However, in other countries these statistics would be categorised as other forms of violence because they do not have this specific legal definition. Many of these cases could be lost to an analysis of gender-based violence because they are not classified as such; worse, the victim may not receive the right support or services and the report can be completely missed because it hasn’t been properly recognised.

The same is true for rape. Even though we know that all member states have a specific offence for rape or sexual violence, their definitions are not harmonised, and in some cases, can be very different. In some countries, rape has to be extremely serious – not to say that any instance of rape isn’t serious, but it must include some level of physical assault, for example – for it to be recorded. Now, in recent discussions the consensus has emerged that a lack of consent defines rape, but only in ten member states is rape legally defined as sex without consent.

To address this, member states will need to mutually agree on definitions, ensuring that they are harmonised for monitoring purposes. In EIGE’s Gender Equality Index, in the violence domain, we are trying to identify contextual factors, and to determine what the prevalence of gender-based violence in certain member states will be like in the future. You cannot compare member states to each other if their definitions of certain acts of violence are different. Thankfully, with the implementation and ratification of the Istanbul Convention, establishing those definitions will become obligatory for all member states, and EIGE will play a role in facilitating this.

One example is the word ‘femicide’, which has been described to mean the killing of a woman because she is a woman – as homicide, but with a gender-based motive. We have developed a definition and, although it is not referred to in the Istanbul Convention, we hope that member states will accept it and use it for statistical purposes; this will allow member states to collect data and compare themselves on that level.

What impact do you think that the EU’s signing of the Istanbul Convention is going to have?

The Istanbul Convention is the significant advancement in the struggle to address violence against women to date. Now, member states will have to undergo regular monitoring of their efforts. They will also have to establish criteria and agree standards for comparison at which point the legislation may have to be adjusted to take account of new definitions. For us, this is a very big step and shows the EU’s full commitment to eradicating violence against women.

Over the last year, the EU has been leading a campaign to combat violence against women. How much progress do you feel has been made?

It’s a great initiative because it’s important to discuss gender-based violence, whilst making progress visible for the member states at the same time. As part of our contribution to the campaign, EIGE prepared fact sheets on the situation of violence against women in all the member states, and translated them into national languages so that each country could see what was happening at home and elsewhere in the EU. The campaign also led to a special Eurobarometer survey, which collected data on attitudes towards gender-based violence, which will be vital for analysing progress and for governments to address the issue.

From the stakeholders I’ve spoken to, the European Commission’s efforts have been greatly appreciated by actors and beneficiaries. The commission made €4m of funds available to member states to produce targeted information, which could educate those societies and raise awareness at a national level. I believe that if there are greater discussions and heightened awareness of gender-based violence, then it will no longer be tolerated at any level. Getting that message across is a really good start.

The European Commission has for many years now, focused efforts on a programme concerned with addressing and preventing female genital mutilation (FGM), which is still prevalent in some member states. The programme has been successful in raising awareness and in promoting best practices in combatting this harmful practice.

How will EIGE continue to work to tackle gender-based violence?

First of all, we want to make sure that what is called administrative data – that is, the data collected by national authorities, ministries of justice, police, social and health centres, and other institutions working with victims of violence – is being collected coherently. We want to establish a full commitment from these authorities that they understand how they need to work, that they will be committed to train practitioners and officials, and that the necessary data will be collected on a continuous basis. In the future, we want to be able to integrate certain indicators into the violence domain of our Gender Equality Index; data collected on indicators such as rape or intimate partner violence, for example. We are directing our efforts towards ensuring that all 28 member states have this information regularly collected and readily available.

We will also work on the issue of female genital mutilation. While it may not be an issue in all member states, it is a severe and horrible form of violence, and it’s shocking that it still exists in the modern age. We want governments to support these efforts through changes in the law, convictions for this form of violence, and better protection of girls.

Recently, we have begun analysing newer forms of violence which we see emerging; for example, cyber violence, and how young girls in particular are under threat. We will be working with the Eurostat Task Force on updating the prevalence survey originally conducted by the Fundamental Rights Agency, which will also collect data on intimate partner violence against men; but these efforts take time. It’s not simple, because it’s very human that victims don’t talk about their pain as a result of gender-based violence. Through our joint efforts with the commission and member states, I am hopeful for a Europe where girls and women can live free from the traumas of violence and abuse.


EIGE will release the third edition of the Gender Equality Index on 11 October 2017. A special report on the domain of violence will follow in November 2017.


Virginija Langbakk


The European Institute for Gender Equality


This article will appear in Pan European Networks: Government 23, which will be published in October.

Pan European Networks Ltd