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.