Before 1981, men in Italy received a reduced sentence whenever they killed their wives, daughters, or sisters, to protect the honour of their names or their family.
Today, things have changed dramatically and legislation, both domestically and internationally. considers violence against women as a hideous crime to condemn. Globally, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, and the Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW) denounce discrimination and violence against women, although it was only with General Comments 12, 19, 35 that gender-based violence was prohibited by the Convention.
Even in Europe, the Council of Europe has taken important steps to prohibit violence and protect women, namely by signing the Istanbul Convention. Nonetheless, there are still many issues to be faced and many women that are victims of harassment or other forms of violence in the world. Although many indications of progress have been made, the legal tools to protect women are still inadequate in many countries and the social stigma attached to the victims of violence continues to add harm to harm. Notwithstanding the legal efforts, data are disheartening.
As the UN reminds us, 30% of the women in the world experience “physical or sexual violence in their lifetime” at the hands of their own partners, with an alarming number of them ending up being killed. These staggering numbers depend on the various ways in which violence manifests itself. Indeed, while many believe gender violence to include only battering and sexual abuse, the multiple forms that mistreatments take are various and span from battering and rape to psychological abuse, harassment, human trafficking, cyber violence, female genital mutilation, and child marriage.
According to the UN “almost 750 million women and girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday; while 200 million women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM)”. Quite shockingly, in 2017, 1 in 2 women killed worldwide were killed by their partners or a family member. If the circumstances of the murders vary, it is disturbing that some women, as we can see in the box below, are still killed because of sorcery accusations.
Human trafficking is another expression of violence. Estimates show that victims of human trafficking amount to hundreds of thousands globally each year, with 15,000 of those reported in the EU, 71% of whom are sexually exploited women.
The road to eliminating gender-based violence is still hard and made much harder during these days of the pandemic. Special groups of women are particularly vulnerable, young women, migrants, and women coming from lower classes whose voices are more difficult to hear, due to lack of means and structural injustice.
Migrant women and refugees
Addressing gender-based violence and migration often means touching upon the very same reasons, rape, forced marriage, domestic violence, that brought a person to leave her country of origin. The WHO report: “Even though data are scarce, we know that in humanitarian and emergency settings, linked to an increase in armed actors and a decrease in security as a result of broken social and protective networks, the risk to women of different forms of violence are even greater”. The abuses do not end with their departure, since, while on their way, many women are raped or forced into prostitution. However, it is important to remember that migrant women, refugees, or asylum seekers are subjected to gender-based violence in their home countries as well, as their legal status is not clear, and their financial means are limited. Migrants, in particular undocumented migrants, remain among the most vulnerable individuals within society and often struggle to ask for and receive help. Women find themselves in difficult economic conditions that prevent them from escaping their abusive partner or finding another place to stay. Some migrant women have difficulty in expressing themselves in a language that is not theirs and find it hard to navigate a legal system they know nothing about, and understand which rights it grants them. Also, women might find it uncomfortable to report their case before male officers and the lack of a more gender-balanced police force might cause them to desist.
Migrants and refugees are not keen to report crimes also because of a lack of trust towards authorities and a certain degree of fear of them, having often been exposed to abuses by border control patrols. Without documents, or with a temporary residency permit, these people are at mercy of abusers and perpetrators, and in fear of being deported. Women’s rights should not be dependent on one’s membership status though and they require a serious implementation by the host country, putting in place mechanisms to welcome women, undocumented women as well, to help them report and find justice. GREVIO, the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence highlighted that there is a “lack of gender-sensitive migration and asylum policies and procedure” which needs to be addressed as soon as possible. IOM has already tried to solve some of the issues related to migration and violence by developing PROTECT. The project aims at preventing sexual and gender-based violence against migrants and at strengthening support to victims by providing migrants with tools to address violence against women. These are important legal steps to treat migrant women with that respect that should also inform the way migrant women are seen and treated in society in their daily interactions.
Technology and gender-based violence
These days, the fight against harassment seems particularly hard given the new venues where women can be threatened. Indeed, while technological advancements contribute to an improvement of life and human rights control, they are also used to stalk women, to control them, and to abuse them, revenge porn being only one example among many new forms of violence. In the EU, 1 in 10 women since the age of 15 reported online gender-based violence, with the percentage going up, 1 in 5, among all youths aged 18-29. Cyberspace is also the new recruitment area for human trafficking, as expressed in CEDAW/C/GC/38, so that now we see “an increased recruitment for sexual exploitation on-line, an increased demand for child sexual abuse material”. This is possible since the web allows for a higher degree of anonymity compared to the offline world. Electronic currencies are used to easily avoid disclosing personal information or the purpose of the payment, alongside social media platforms’ accessibility to all, render easier for sexual predators to communicate with potential victims.
Social media are exceptional sharing tools, and this is of course a double-edged sword since they can also become perfect surveillance tools to follow a person and to share private images or videos of a former lover. Revenge porn is sadly a more and more used way to harass women, data shows that 90% of the victims are indeed female, a kind of violence that saw a surge in numbers during the pandemic. Revenge porn can cause serious mental problems, anxiety, and a loss of self-respect, not to mention the sense of loneliness and powerlessness it generates. Some states have already taken some positive steps to address the issue, most notably the UK and Singapore, where you can be sentenced to up to 5 years in jail for distributing intimate images. However, perpetrators are finding new ways to continue the abuse, especially now with online conference tools being so widely used. What is most tragic is that in these cases many victims find themselves abandoned and called names, with a sense of shame that others make them feel. This indicates that while technology needs to keep up to protect the users, some of whom are still minors, we need a cultural shift so that the victims can feel safe in reporting and be supported by the community, while perpetrators are highly and severely blamed.
COVID19 and the wave of domestic violence
The current situation the entire world is facing is frightening beyond the threat of the virus, as stay-at-home policies enable violence behind closed doors. Italian data show that during the 87 days of lockdown earlier this year, every other day a woman has been killed. As noticed by Evelyn Regner “women in violent relationships are stuck at home and exposed to their abuser for longer periods. This makes it very difficult for them to call helplines, as the perpetrator is always around”. Indeed, several factors render lockdowns apt for the rise of violence against women. Widespread economic insecurity is one of them, together with social isolation. These elements intensify mental problems or create them and separate the victims from possible helpers, exposing them to daily violence.
What could be done to make clear that women’s lives count?
Women’s Lives Count
First, states all over the world have to comply with the duties they subscribed to by signing the CEDAW and, for COE members, also the Istanbul Convention. This means committing to:
- monitoring violence against women;
- properly funded services (shelters, support centers, helplines) to support women;
- having translators and cultural mediators to help migrant women report their abuses;
- assuring the certainty of the penalty;
- ensuring effective police investigation;
- protecting women from their abusers, promptly and efficaciously.
For a future with lower numbers of victims, we also need states to prevent these crimes from occurring in the first place and to promote a perception of women that contrasts with patriarchal stereotypes.
Infrastructures also need to improve, mental health facilities need to be funded more, and cities need to be safer, with public transportation guaranteed throughout neighborhoods, particularly during the night. Most importantly, a deep cultural change is needed. We need young male children to understand the value of their female friends and respect them, and young women need to be encouraged in applying for apical positions, in politics, science, economics, and beyond. The cost of doing politics for women is still too high. Political violence, in the forms of sexual violence, including mob violence, abductions, and forced disappearances, is still a serious obstacle to women’s participation in many countries, most notably in Sub- Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and parts of Eastern and Central Europe and Central Asia.
Moreover, diversity and not stereotypes should surround us. It is essential to see different women, women who do not follow imposed aesthetics paradigms, women of color, Black women, indigenous women, migrant women, lesbians, transwomen in the media and in positions of power. Last but not least, we need to dismantle the stigma surrounding the victims of violence. To do so women need men, but also other women as their allies.
Solidarity is key. Society cannot tolerate violence against women or accept it. The higher the acceptance levels of violence, the higher its occurrence. Men and women alike must be encouraged to see violence in general and violence against women in particular as impermissible and to be reported. Victims should not be left alone with void promises of help, or with a sense of shame. Shame should be reserved for the perpetrators, to those bystanders who do not intervene, or to those who diminish the events and degrade women.
Recognising the various and vicious forms of ill-treatment as serious violations of fundamental rights is an essential step that society needs to make. This is necessary to grant the victims not only due protection and reparations but also a decent life to live, removing that stigma that oftentimes is still attached to victims of violence.
The cultural shift we need requires a collective effort, now.
If you or someone you know is a victim of violence, do not hesitate and look for help. Here is a list of helplines in Europe.
Elettra Repetto is a Doctoral Candidate at Central European University. She is an editorial board member of Rights! and a political theorist who writes about transnational civil disobedience, with additional research interests in migration and climate change. She is the former coordinator of the Migration Research Group at CEU and has been a Fellow at Telluride House, Cornell University (NY). Elettra has collaborated with NGOs working with asylum seekers and refugees in Italy and Greece and gained considerable experience as an environmental activist. Besides her E.MA (2014-2015), she holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Pavia. Follow her @_ElektraR