Enough is enough! Paving the way for a European Union free from gender-based violence  

Finally, the European Parliament adopted its position on the Directive for combating violence against women and domestic violence! This is a historic step for the European Union as this directive will constitute the first legislative document of the EU for addressing gender-based violence. Gender-based violence may affect people who do not identify themselves as women. Therefore it should not only be referred to as the violence against women. We did not succeed to change the name of the document, but its content can relate to other genders.

We fought this feminist fight for years in the European Parliament. It is now up to the European Commission and the EU Council to finalise the text.

The Directive on gender-based violence, together with the Istanbul Convention, ratified by the European Union in June 2023, will form the long-awaited legal framework to protect people from gender-based violence.

What is gender-based violence?

Gender-based violence, including violence against women, involve all forms of violence that disproportionately affects women and marginalised communities.

Gender-based violence includes sexual harassment, rape, female genital mutilation, and gendered cyber violence. It is a widespread phenomenon in the EU: 1 in 3 women have experienced it. Every third woman you know alongside your mother, your sister, or your friend has survived some form of gender-based violence. Ending gender-based violence is an urgent issue and needs to be tackled without delay. Not every national legislation of the EU Member States addresses the problem of gender-based violence properly. In countries such as Poland or Hungary, women’s rights are not meeting European standards. On the contrary, they are being eroded more and more every year. That is why we need a European Union directive, that establishes a common ground of action towards eradication of gender-based violence in all 27 countries of the EU.

Only yes means yes: The proposal for a law against gender-based violence

In brief, the initial proposal for a law against gender-based violence by the European Commission focused on three main issues:

  1. Only yes means yes: the crime of rape based on the lack of consent and the criminalisation of other forms of violence related to the sexual exploitation of women and children.
  2. A safe online space: Ending cyberviolence and gender-based computer crimes.
  3. What do victims need? Specialised support, access to justice and protection for victims of gender-based violence with special attention to marginalised communities

Overall, the European Commission’s proposal was to criminalise certain forms of violence that disproportionately affect women. They also wanted to strengthen victims’ rights. As to the offenses, in the Commission proposal, we could find rape, female genital mutilation, and four articles regarding cyber violence.

In the newly adopted position of the European Parliament, we were able to add sexual assault, intersex genital mutilation, forced sterilisation and forced marriage to the list of gender-based violence. Also, we added offences concerning sexual harassment in the world of work . Another great win is that we have better reformulated cybercrimes upon recommendations and opinions of NGOs who we consulted during the negotiation process.

We, as the Greens/EFA in the European Parliament, are proud that we have been able to strengthen the provisions on the protection of victims and prevention of violence. We have also been able to expand the list of crimes to help more people seek justice when they are victims of violence. More generally speaking, we have worked hard for the European Parliament to adopt a much more inclusive approach to combating gender-based violence.

So, what did our feminist fight result in? What does the law against gender-based violence entail? Read on to find out how close we are now to a Europe free from gender-based violence and what we still need to do.

The Greens/EFA wins for a law against gender-based violence: Intersectionality, inclusivity, companion animals and solid measures on prevention

Through the negotiation process, the Greens/EFA strongly defended the group’s position and its priorities for a more feminist and equal Europe.  As a result of intensive and hard negotiations, and with the support of NGOs and civil society, we added very important issues for the Greens/EFA group to the final text.

Intersex genital mutilation is a violation of human rights and should be a crime in the EU

Intersex genital mutilation (IGM) is an intervention on a healthy intersex body – that is a body that has sex characteristics of both sexes. The intention is to make their bodies fit in either category of the binary construct of male and female. Often these procedures are done without the persons’ consent and have lifelong consequences. For these reasons, intersex people are one of the most discriminated groups among the LGBTI population. With the proposal to introduce Intersex genital mutilation as a crime, the European Parliament stands firmly for intersex and LGBTIQ rights.

Forced sterilisation is still happening in the 21st century – Let’s end these human rights violation

Forced sterilisation is a practice that removes the ability of victims to reproduce. It mainly affects racialized people, people with disabilities, people wishing to obtain gender affirming treatment as well as people living in institutional care. According to the European Disability Forum, 13 countries in the EU still have legal frameworks that authorise forced sterilisation. We need to do something about it and the European Parliament is ready to put its foot down with this directive.

No law against gender-based violence without intersectionality

During the negotiations the Greens/EFA pushed firmly for the law against gender-based violence to be as inclusive as possible. Gender-based violence affects women disproportionately but there are women from specific communities who face a higher risk. We are talking about racialized women, working class women, LBTIQ women, women with disabilities, women living in institutional care, migrant and undocumented women and young women and girls, among others. The position of the European Parliament has been clear: an intersectional approach to address gender-based violence is necessary and groups at specific risk must be regarded with special attention.

How can the EU prevent gender-based violence?

Our goal is not only to address violence and its consequences but also to make everything possible to keep it from happening. For the Greens/EFA, it is of high importance that we tackle the root causes of gender-based violence. We will continue to promote institutional and structural change to achieve a European Union free of all forms of gender-based violence.

On the grounds of this, one of the victories of the Greens/EFA is the inclusion of a provision for National Action Plans for the elimination of violence against women and domestic violence. Each EU country now has to develop its own National Action Plan to combat gender-based violence. National Action Plans will have to delineate priorities and actions to combat violence against women and domestic violence in the Member States. Moreover, to achieve these priorities and actions, they will include targets and monitoring mechanisms, as well as necessary resources to combat violence.

Another important win has been the introduction of perpetrator programmes as part of the measures on prevention. That provision was already contemplated in the European Commission’s proposal, but the European Parliament has specified further what it should entail. We were also able to include provisions for the rehabilitation of offenders, especially in cases when barring, restraining or protection orders have been issued.

Let’s not forget the rights of the victims with companion animals

Multiple studies acknowledge the close relationship between animal abuse and interpersonal violence, especially gender-based violence. This alarming situation can have dramatic consequences on victims with companion animals. The abusers can build on the strong animal-owner bond to threaten, control, or coerce the victims. In this context, victims of domestic violence can even refrain from leaving the household if they cannot find a shelter welcoming their companion animal. In Spain, researchers found that statistically half of the victims of violence take care of companion animals. 59% of those victims do not leave their abusers, being scared of their animals’ health and lives. In addition, these animals provide emotional support to victims at crucial moments. We acknowledge that animal abuse is often an indicator and precursor of violence towards humans. According to different studies, around 76% of animal abusers are hurting their relatives.

During the negotiations, we managed to convince other political groups to include the reference to victims’ rights with companion animals in the article on individual assessment only. As other political groups did not want to broaden the perspective of gender-based violence and provide a more complex approach to the victims’ rights, we did not manage to push for the inclusion of shelter accommodating victims with their animals. Sadly, this is also what happened with our amendments on the protection and support needs, together with preventive measures as to the victims with animals – those are included only in the preamble which is a part of the directive not binding on the Member States. However, this is the first time ever in the EU legislation to refer to the rights of the victims with companion animals. It is a big Green success and can be a precedent for future legislation!

For a safe and feminist internet: Addressing gender-based cyberviolence

As the world moves online, forms of violence that already affect women and girls disproportionately are taking different dimensions. The EU did not have a legislative framework to address this gender-based violence, despite its harmful impacts on individuals, society, and democracy. Finally, the Directive combating violence against women and domestic violence is recognising this problem and taking measures to protect women online.

Based on surveys carried out by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency in 2012 and 2019, it estimates that between 4 and 7 % of women aged over 18 in the EU-27 experienced cyber-harassment in the previous 12 months, and between 1 and 3 % experienced cyberstalking. The study finds that prevalence has risen with greater use of the internet and social media and is likely to increase further. This particularly affects younger age groups.

The survey found that women in public life, including journalists, activists and politicians are especially likely to receive misogynistic and sexualised online abuse. This also affects women from ethnic minorities and LGBTIQ+ people disproportionately. Increased internet usage during the coronavirus pandemic has put more women and girls at risk of cyber-violence, as well as creating new types of crime, with evidence that misogynistic online content is spreading from minority to mainstream social platforms, normalising abuse.

As for the cybercrimes, the Directive against gender-based violence will criminalise the following behaviour online:

  • Non-consensual sharing of intimate or manipulated material
  • Cyber stalking
  • Cyber harassment
  • Cyber incitement to violence or hatred

Finally, a law against gender-based violence. What is the next step?

Now the directive against gender-based violence will enter interinstitutional negotiations with the European Commission and the EU Council. We expect the institutions to adopt it in approximately one year. After that, the Directive will be part of the European Union’s legal framework for defying gender-based violence, together with the Istanbul Convention.

In the European Parliament, we will continue demanding that the EU adds gender-based violence to the list of euro crimes in the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union.

This is an absolutely necessary action if we want to have the most comprehensive and ambitious legal basis for all further actions towards the eradication of gender-based violence!

What can you do?

The Istanbul Convention, first signed by the European Union in 2013, has been subject to propagandistic campaigns by different populist governments and groups in many Member States for years. Many use it to scare people from the progressive approach to gender and gender-based violence. Populists claim it would destroy different national and family traditions as well as being in contradiction to religious beliefs.

Many eurosceptics use this issue to claim that the EU is interfering in private family matters and national traditions. Therefore, we need to explain the reasons behind the Directive to prevent probable attacks from the populists and right-wing groups who may try to question its importance.

Many people are still not aware of the scale of gender-based violence, some are not aware of this phenomenon even though they are subject to different forms of discrimination.

What you can do is talk to your family, friends, and relatives about this widespread human rights violation, and explain why we need legislation against it!