Stop the ‘shadow pandemic’ of violence against women

To mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, buildings and landmarks are being bathed in orange light to raise awareness of and galvanise action for 16 Days of Activism.

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

25 Nov 2020

November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, marks the beginning of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, an international campaign that concludes on 10 December, which is International Human Rights Day.

This year’s Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women has a particular resonance given the spike in domestic violence reports globally against the backdrop of the Coronavirus pandemic lockdowns.

According to the United Nations (UN), since the outbreak of COVID-19, all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified.

The UN says that as COVID-19 cases continue to strain health services, essential services, such as domestic violence shelters and helplines, have reached capacity. In some countries calls to helplines have increased five-fold.

The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) says that the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a harsh light on how unprepared societies often are to protect victims of intimate partner violence, and that governments must not turn a blind eye.

In a recent study, EIGE says that the pandemic-induced wave of violence against women shows that EU countries still lack proper safeguards.

“Violence against women is the most systematic and frequent human rights violation in the world. The 25 November reminds us to never stop fighting for women’s rights until we are free and safe!” Evelyn Regner, Chair of Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee

Director Carlien Scheele said, “Women usually face the most danger from people they know. EIGE’s research shows EU governments recognise this: every single country has introduced special measures to protect women from intimate partner violence during the pandemic. Yet persistent under-funding of shelters and domestic violence hotlines has resulted in sometimes patchy support.”

EIGE says that domestic violence awareness campaigns are important for witnesses, who can fail to intervene because they might not recognise intimate partner violence when they see it.

“Campaigns also provide clear guidance on how witnesses can help when they fear they will make the situation worse. Around 20-30 percent of calls to domestic violence hotlines come from witnesses - they ought to be reassured and guided through this daunting process.”

“EIGE’s research shows witnesses often want to help in ways aside from reporting to the police, for example by talking to the victim or helping them access support services. Guidance on such ways to help should also be part of campaigns.”

EIGE says that almost every EU country has rolled out awareness raising campaigns to let victims know about the help available. Greece, Finland and Portugal, for example, addressed refugees and migrants, while other countries reached out to women from Roma communities, LGBTIQ+ women, or those with hearing impairments. Spain’s campaign emphasised that domestic violence is a human rights violation - not a private issue.

On Wednesday, A chorus of voices across the EU widely condemned what has recently been dubbed the “shadow pandemic” of domestic violence.

“Persistent under-funding of shelters and domestic violence hotlines has resulted in sometimes patchy support” Carlien Scheele, EIGE Director

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, “Violence against women is at an alarming level. With COVID-19, for some of us not even home is a safe place. Today, I say no more. Violence against women has to stop. In Europe, and abroad. We owe it to all the victims.”

EU High Representative Josep Borrell said that violence against women and girls is a violation of human rights that has no place in the European Union or anywhere else in the world.

“Figures show that violence against women and children has increased since the COVID-19 lockdown measures started. Some Member States have introduced gender-sensitive response measures, such as special alert mechanisms in pharmacies, to protect women and children from all forms of violence. We urge all Member States to develop and implement such measures.”

He added, “Change is possible, but it requires action, commitment and determination. The EU is committed to continue to work tirelessly with its partners to investigate and punish acts of violence, ensure support for victims, and at the same time to address the root causes and reinforce the legal framework.”

“We also call on Member States to ratify the Istanbul Convention - the first legally binding instrument at the international level to combat violence against women and domestic violence.”

As things stand, the Istanbul Convention has been signed by all EU Member States, and ratified by 21: Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden.

“With COVID-19, for some of us not even home is a safe place. Today, I say no more. Violence against women has to stop. In Europe, and abroad. We owe it to all the victims” Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President

However, in July Poland announced that it would withdraw from the Convention, citing unacceptable and harmful “ideological provisions.”

Irish EPP MEP Frances Fitzgerald said that the Istanbul Convention offers the most comprehensive approach to tackling the scourge of violence against women.

She added, “We absolutely must be clear as regards the Istanbul Convention: its sole purpose is to tackle this horrendous crime, nothing else. We must be vigilant in fighting back at efforts to portray the Convention as anything else.”

Commission Vice-President Margrethe Vestager tweeted a photo of the Berlaymont headquarters in Brussels illuminated in orange on Wednesday evening, adding, “Lights are on tonight for each and every woman that suffered violence. Physically or emotionally. Down the streets or online. No matter where. We stand united to end violence against women.”

European Equality Commissioner Helena Dalli cited some sobering statistics: “1 in 3 women in the EU has experienced physical/sexual violence; 1 in 5 women has experienced stalking; 1 in 2 women has been confronted with sexual harassment.”

She added, “Anyone can be victim of violence and everyone has a role in ending it.”

Evelyn Regner, chair of Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee said, “Violence against women is the most systematic and frequent human rights violation in the world. The 25 November reminds us to never stop fighting for women’s rights until we are free and safe!”

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