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Europe’s Problem with Domestic Abuse

A graphic showing a map of Europe and a woman hiding her face
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Domestic abuse is one of the biggest social issues affecting women and children in the UK today. Crime+Investigation is #HereForHer with our charity partner Refuge to help End Abuse Against Women.

Here for Her is the next big phase in Crime+Investigation’s End Abuse Against Women campaign. Partnering in the UK with Refuge, the country’s largest provider of help and support for women and children, we’re aiming to raise awareness of domestic abuse and remind the nation that we, all of us as a society, are #HereForHer.

That said, End Abuse Against Women isn’t just about the UK. It’s a Europe-wide campaign, and that begs the question: just how bad a scourge is domestic abuse across the various countries that make up Europe?

The last major analysis of the scale of the problem across the whole continent took place back in 2014. It was conducted by the Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union, and surveyed more than 42,000 women in the EU. The results were stark and startling. One in three women revealed that they had experienced physical and/or sexual abuse since the age of 15. The Fundamental Rights Agency discussed these findings in unequivocal terms, saying that 'what emerges is a picture of extensive abuse that affects many women’s lives', and warning that, due to underreporting of these crimes, 'the scale of violence against women is therefore not reflected by official data.'

The report showed that one in 10 women had been stalked by an ex-partner, and that, of the women who said they had been raped by their current partner, roughly a third had been raped six or more times.

There were also some disturbing insights into the prevalence of domestic abuse in individual countries. Perhaps surprisingly, given their reputation for social equality and liberalism, the likes of Denmark, Sweden, Finland and the UK were all shown to be among the worst offending nations for domestic abuse by partners and ex-partners. On the other end of the spectrum, Austria, Croatia, Poland and Spain were some of the countries showing the lowest percentages – at least, in terms of women willing to report on abuse.

Speaking about the surprising rates of often lethal violence against women in northern Europe, Paivi Naskali – a Gender Studies professor at the University of Lapland – said: 'In Nordic countries, women's equal rights are protected in the public sphere but not in the private sphere. The welfare state has given many rights to women, but this policy has concentrated on the labour market... not equality in private life.'

It’s also been suggested that more socially progressive countries, like Sweden and the UK, may demonstrate more damning numbers precisely because women are less likely to feel stigmatised about speaking out about their abuse. So these numbers may not be all that helpful in casting a light on what’s really going on around Europe.

More recently, in 2019, there was a specifically targeted survey conducted by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), looking at 15,000 women across eight countries in Eastern Europe – including Albania, Kosovo and Ukraine. The report emphasised the problem of women not feeling able to report abuse, with only 7% of those surveyed having contacted the police about their experiences. It found that a disturbing 70% of women had experienced domestic abuse, stalking and/or sexual harassment since the age of 15. This survey was a strong reminder that domestic abuse isn’t just about violence, with the majority of those affected reporting psychological trauma from coercive, controlling behaviour by partners.

Outright murder committed by partners is another issue Europe has somehow deal with. In 2019, the BBC reported on the numbers of killings within relationships, revealing that Romania and Northern Ireland had the highest such murder rates. That same year, France announced strong measures to deal with femicide (that is to say, killings of women and girls because of their gender). These measures, including the creation of a thousand shelter places and an analysis of how police handled the reporting of abuse, were – with grim coincidence – announced just as the 100th case of femicide in France that year was being reported in the media.

Frustratingly for women’s rights campaigner, one of the most proactive, pan-European protocols for cracking down on domestic abuse has yet to be fully implemented. This is the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, better known as the Istanbul Convention.

Way back in 2012, it set out minimum measures for different governments to put in place. These include the creation of minimum numbers of shelters and rape crisis centres, adequate support and counselling for abuse survivors, and equal help for undocumented migrants. While numerous countries have ratified the convention, some – including the United Kingdom – still haven’t. The UK has been criticised of dragging its feet on the issue, and not yet meeting the minimum requirements for ratifying (for example, not having enough rape crisis centres).

Even the UK’s Domestic Abuse Bill, recently reintroduced to Parliament and hailed by many as a major step forward in tackling domestic abuse, has been slammed as inadequate. Speaking in 2019, Chiara Capraro, women’s rights programme manager for Amnesty International UK said, 'The bill falls short of meeting the convention’s requirement to provide protection to all women without discrimination, as it neglects the specific needs of migrant women and risks further marginalising them.'

There’s clearly a lot more work to be done, both in terms of cracking down on abuse, encouraging women to feel comfortable about speaking out, and supporting survivors all across Europe. It’s why it’s more imperative than ever to show that we are all #HereForHer.