Sunday, April 27, 2014

Serena Kutchinsky - Violence against women is Europe’s secret shame

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.”... read more: