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True or False? Europe has no real interest in protecting and empowering women

04/08/2011

By Eve Ensler

As political change spreads across the Middle East and we celebrated the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day last month, I have spent a great deal of time meditating and appreciating the heroic and crucial role of grassroots women throughout the world. I’ve thought about how they have worked tirelessly and often under attack to stand up against violence and injustice, to provide services when the government fails to do so, and to demand accountability and an end to impunity.

In Europe, as in other parts of the world, it is thanks to grassroots women that violence against women has become an issue that is recognized by governments and policy makers. With very few resources, they run shelters, provide emergency medical support to survivors fleeing their abusers, advocate for essential policies, provide legal counsel, train women and girls in self-defense, raise awareness about taboo subjects, and help women and children pick up the pieces when their lives have been shattered, both economically and emotionally. It is because of their bravery and insistence that a husband no longer has a right to rape his wife and sexual harassment is no longer legitimized office sport.

At first glance, it looks like politics in Europe have started to take those grassroots women’s demands seriously. At the Council of Europe, with its membership spanning from Ireland to Russia, the first international binding instrument specifically devoted to violence against women is being drafted. The 27-member European Union has also made a multitude of commitments on ending violence against women, including European Parliament resolutions calling for a legally binding Directive (the most recent one adopted on 5 April 2011); EU member states echoed this call, and asked the European Commission to devise a European strategy, to create an Observatory on violence against women and to improve prevention; last year, the European Commission committed to a strategy and action plan to combat violence against women. But what has all this led to?

To date, the European Commission has not followed through on most of its commitments and obligations, whilst at the Council of Europe, at the very last stages before adoption of the “Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence”, some countries, including the UK and Russia, are now making last minute efforts to unravel key provisions made in the draft treaty.

Is it possible that we are still here in 2011 fighting for the most obvious and basic rights for women? Is it possible that European decision makers have no real interest in protecting and empowering women?

Some have said the ennui and lack of action comes from the belief that violence against women is not a pressing issue in Europe, or that the willingness of Member States to prioritize is simply a reflection of the fact that there are more important issues. That claim is absurd. Just look at the facts and tell me how violence against women could not be seen as a pressing issue:

• When including all forms of violence against women, it has been estimated that as many as 45% of all women in Europe have been subjected to male violence during their lifetime

• In France, one woman is killed every three days by her partner or ex-partner. In the UK, the figure is two per week.

• One in four female students on UK campuses says she had been subjected to an unwanted sexual experience at university or college.

• 40-50% of women in the EU have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

• 79% of victims of trafficking are trafficked for sexual exploitation; more than 80% of these are female.

• 500,000 girls and women in the EU live with female genital mutilation.

• For the entire Council of Europe area, the cost of domestic violence alone is estimated at an annual total of at least 33 billion euros.

The time is now for measures that would require all Member States to put their money and their time behind prevention and response measures to keep women and girls safe. If governments in Europe are serious about protecting half of their population, the adoption of a meaningful Council of Europe Convention and a legally binding EU Directive should not be so difficult. The most recent European Parliament resolution on a new EU policy framework to fight violence against women provides the framework for that. The debate leading up to the adoption of this resolution, with rather inappropriate comments by the president, proved a case in point of the urgent need for one of the measures the resolution asks for: to work against “stereotypes and socially determined beliefs which help perpetuate the conditions that generate gender based violence and acceptance of it”.

The EU will soon decide on its upcoming multi-year budget from 2013 onwards. ‘Sensible’ spending is all the “order of the day.” A recent study has shown that the cost of intimate partner violence alone, in the EU, is estimated at 16 billion Euros per year. That means 1 million Euros every half hour is wasted because nothing is done to prevent the abuse of women by their partners. The study also shows that, if the budgets for prevention of this violence were increased by 1 Euro, it could save 87 Euro in total costs. Increasing budgets for prevention would be sensible spending, wouldn't it?

Currently, V-Day activists in over 20 European countries are organizing events in more than 100 locations to raise awareness and funds for the grassroots organizations that work to end violence against women. Commissioner Reding herself knows the power of V-Day’s grassroots activism – she herself joined V-Day activists in 2004 when she took the stage to be part of a benefit performance of The Vagina Monologues in her country, Luxembourg.

This grassroots activism fills some of the gaps that currently exist in both prevention and service provision, but political decision makers in Europe need to make ending violence against women and girls an active and real priority. Like the thousands of women and girls I have met across the 60-plus countries to which I have traveled over the past 15 years, European women know exactly what they need, and exactly how to best address their particular needs within their particular set of circumstances. It is up to political leaders to listen, and then to carefully help provide platforms and paths for them to steer their own destinies.

Eve Ensler is the founder of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls, which grew out of her play The Vagina Monologues. Since 1999, V-Day has spread across Europe; this year alone, hundreds of V-Day activists are raising awareness and funds for shelters, community groups and other anti-violence initiatives across 22 European countries.