A woman walks past a mural commemorating the 107 women killed by men in Italy in 2012. Photo: Getty.
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A third of women in the EU have faced sexual or physical violence

Denmark, Sweden and Finland had the highest rates of violence against women, despite the countries' reputation for promoting gender equality. Why?

The world’s largest ever survey on violence against women makes for grim reading. A third of women in the European Union have experienced sexual or physical violence since the age of 15, a survey of 42,000 women conducted by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) has revealed. One fifth of women have experienced sexual or physical violence from a partner, and 5 per cent of women have been raped.

Women are also likely to experience sexual or physical violence at a young age: a third have experiences of childhood physical or sexual abuse, with half of those who have faced sexual violence having been abused by a stranger.  

These high rates of gender based violence are in no way unique to the EU: according to the World Health Organisation around 35 per cent of women will experience sexual or physical violence in their lifetime, and a 2013 WHO report concluded that Europe had lower rates of violence against women than any other region. In countries with a recent history of conflict or severe restrictions of women’s rights, rates of violence against women are even higher. According to the UN, for instance, 87 per cent of women in Afghanistan have suffered sexual, psychological or physical violence in their lifetime.

But it is still shocking to consider that while most EU countries pride themselves on being global leaders in women's empowerment and gender equality, so many women face violence. One strange statistic is that the Scandinavian countries, widely considered among the most equal, posted some of the highest rates of violence. 52 per cent of women in Denmark report having experienced physical or sexual violence since the age of 15, compared to 47 per cent in Finland and 46 per cent in Sweden. In the UK, the figure is 44 per cent, which means we have the fifth highest rate of violence against women. In contrast, in Poland 19 per cent of women reported sexual or physical violence.

There are a number of explanations for the higher rates of violence against women in Scandinavian countries (and I don’t think Scandi noir is one of them). It could be that women in these countries felt more able to answer the survey truthfully: perhaps in European countries where the stigma on sexual violence is higher, women were less likely to report violence against them or to recognise their experiences as a form of abuse. It’s also possible, although it’s a sad thought, that the more women socialise and work outside of home, the more likely they are to experience violence from a stranger, friend or colleague.

It would be very misleading to draw to a strong link between women’s empowerment and a rise in gender based violence from the report, however. We know that some of the best protection society can offer women is to make them aware of their rights, to enact and enforce strong laws protecting them from discrimination and violence and to ensure that women are able to report crimes safely, confident that their case will be dealt with sensitively and that they will receive justice.

Which brings me to another shocking statistic from today’s report: only 14 per cent of women reported their most serious incident of partner violence to the police, and 13 per cent reported their most incident of non-partner violence to the police. If Europe wants to hold itself up as an example to others, we have a lot of work to do. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Leader: The age of Putinism

There is no leader who exerts a more malign influence on world affairs than Vladimir Putin.

There is no leader who exerts a more malign ­influence on world affairs than Vladimir Putin. In Syria, Russia’s military intervention has significantly strengthened the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad. Under the guise of fighting Islamist terrorism, Mr Putin’s forces have killed thousands of civilians and destroyed hospitals and schools. Syrian government forces and their foreign allies have moved closer to regaining control of the rebel-held, besieged eastern part of Aleppo, a city in ruins, after a period of intense fighting and aerial bombardment. In Europe, Russia has moved nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, formerly the Prussian city of Königsberg, through the streets of which the great philosopher Immanuel Kant used to take his daily walk.

Across the West, however, Mr Putin is being feted. As Brendan Simms writes on page 30, the Russian president has “annexed Crimea, unleashed a proxy war in eastern Ukraine and threatens Nato’s eastern flank, to say nothing of his other crimes”. Yet this has not deterred his Western sympathisers. In the US, Donald Trump has made no secret of his admiration for the Russian autocrat as a fellow ethnic nationalist and “strongman”. The president-elect’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence is an invitation to Russian expansionism in the Baltic states and eastern Europe.

Mr Trump is far from alone in his admiration for Mr Putin. In France, François Fillon, the socially conservative presidential candidate for the Républicains, favours the repeal of European sanctions against Russia (imposed in response to the annexation of Crimea) and a military alliance in Syria. In return, Mr Putin has praised his French ally as “a great professional” and a “very principled person”.

Perhaps the one certainty of the French election next spring is that Russia will benefit. Marine Le Pen, the Front National leader and Mr Fillon’s likely opponent in the final round, is another devotee of the Russian president. “Putin is looking after the interests of his own country and defending its identity,” she recently declared. Like Mr Trump, Ms Le Pen seems to aspire to create a world in which leaders are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of rebuke.

In Britain, Paul Nuttall, the newly elected leader of the UK Independence Party, has said that Mr Putin is “generally getting it right” in Syria. Mr Nuttall’s predecessor Nigel Farage named the Russian leader as the politician he admired most.

Mr Putin, who aims to defeat the West by dividing it, could not have scripted more favourable publicity. But such lion­isation masks Russia’s profound weaknesses. The country’s economy has been in recession for two years, following the end of the commodities boom, the collapse in the oil price and the imposition of sanctions. Its corrupt and inefficient bureaucratic state now accounts for 70 per cent of its GDP. Its population is ageing rapidly (partly the result of a low ­fertility rate) and is forecast to shrink by 10 per cent over the next 30 years, while life expectancy is now lower than it was in the late 1950s.

Yet this grim context makes Mr Putin an even more dangerous opponent. To maintain his internal standing (and he is popular in Russia), he must pursue external aggression. His rule depends on seeking foreign scapegoats to blame for domestic woes. Not since the Cold War has the threat to Russia’s eastern European neighbours been greater.

How best to respond to Putinism? The United Kingdom, as Europe’s leading military power (along with France), will be forced to devote greater resources to defence. Theresa May has rightly pledged to station more British troops in eastern Europe and to maintain sanctions against Russia until the Minsk agreements, providing for a ceasefire in Ukraine, are implemented. The Prime Minister has also condemned Russia’s “sickening atrocities” in Syria. Germany, where Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term as chancellor, will be another crucial counterweight to a pro-Russian France.

It is neither just nor wise for the West to appease Mr Putin, one of the icons of the illiberal world. The Russian president will exploit any weakness for his own ends. As Tony Blair said in his New Statesman interview last week, “The language that President Putin understands is strength.” Although Russia is economically weak, it aspires to be a great power. We live in the age of Putinism. Donald Trump’s victory has merely empowered this insidious doctrine.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage