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When a Woman says No, She Means It

Sexual Harassment and Violence Against Women: Not Business As Usual

Terra Lopez, a Sacramento-based artist, sets up an exhibit called “This is What it Feels Like”. The purpose of her exhibit: to create a simulated experience that puts men on the other side of catcalling. As participants enter through a dimmed hallway leading to a set of headphones programmed to repeat various objectifying and violent remarks, they experience what so many women are already too familiar with. “For men it’s definitely eye-opening,” said Lopez to the Huffington Post earlier this year. This exhibit is but one attempt to reveal the underlying social structures that not only allow this type of harassment and violence to occur, but for it to even be seen as ‘normal’.

MEPs were presented with some shocking statistics at the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee Hearing on Mobbing and Sexual Harassment on June 20th. Sexual assault and violence can happen in practically any situation, at any moment, mentioned hearing rapporteur and Italian politician, Pina Picierno, after noting that more than half of women in Italy between the ages of 14 and 65 have been sexually harassed at some point in their lives. Sadly, this statistic proved to be in line with the EU norm, where reportedly 1 in 3 women have experienced physical or sexual violence, or both, since the age of 15.

Sexual harassment and violence in the workplace, as well as in politics, was one of the main focuses of this FEMM Committee Hearing. The conversation began with Brigitte Filion, a representative from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, who presented data from 55 women parliamentarians from 39 countries all around the world on their experience with sexual harassment and violence being women in politics.

Results showed that, in many cases, these women felt targeted solely because of their gender: 65.5% of respondents reported that they had personally been subjected several times, or often, to sexual or sexist remarks in the workplace, and 32.7% reported experiencing harassment such as exposure to insistent and uninvited behaviour. Even more shockingly, 44.4% of respondents reported receiving threats of death, rape, beatings or abduction.

Although the majority of the respondents in the study were non-European (only 15 of the 39), the European politicians were also found to have experienced harassment, often targeted at their very legitimacy as women in politics. One European parliamentarian noted that her status as a single, unmarried women places her at the brunt of many sexist remarks, reporting that she “receives e-mails, sometimes accompanied by pornographic images, and the message ‘get out of politics; get married instead.” This reported experience was, sadly, just one of many similar experiences.

“The study’s findings confirm that sexism, harassment and violence against women parliamentarians are very real and widespread,” said Brigitte Filion in an interview with EU-Logos Athena, “they suggest that the phenomenon knows no boundaries and exists to varying degrees in every country, affecting a significant number of women parliamentarians.” The experience of these women parliamentarians is but one example of the ways in which sexual harassment and violence can have an effect on the work and day-to-day lives of women.

The Istanbul Convention: a light of hope?

While these numbers undoubtedly represent a dismal reality regarding continued violence towards women, a light of hope shines from the European Union’s increased commitment to tackle these issues. On June 13th, the EU officially signed the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. The signing of this treaty, known by many as the Istanbul Convention, represents a massive step towards a pan-European approach to bringing these issues to the forefront.

The treaty, which focuses on prevention and protection against violence, as well as prosecution of perpetrators, sets legally binding standards with which governments must comply in approaching the issue of violence against women. While all EU member states have already signed the Convention at the national level, the signing of this treaty at the EU level allows for greater coordination between the two levels of government and will encourage the treaty’s ratification across the EU. As well, the treaty will be applied internally within the operations and institutions of the EU and will allow for the much needed collection of data regarding the issues of harassment and violence against women.

To date, the Istanbul Convention is the only broad legal instrument for addressing gender based violence and domestic violence. In a 2016 study put out by the European Parliament on violence against women, the need for legally binding measures at the EU level was stressed. It noted that while EU directives were currently in effect to tackle similar gendered issues, these directives were too wide in scope, and did not explicitly reference violence against women in many cases. As well, they study noted a strong need for a common definition of violence against women and criminalisation across member states. Without a common definition, coordination on this front is difficult.

What is included in the Istanbul Convention?

As previously stated, the convention primarily focuses on three key issues: prosecution, protection and prevention.

At the level of legal definitions, the convention ensures that violence against women is considered a crime. Psychological and physical violence, sexual violence, rape, stalking, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, forced abortion and forced sterilization are all included under the list of ‘crimes’ under the Convention, notwithstanding their religious or cultural ‘justification’. This definition allows for a comprehensive and universal understanding of violence against women to ensure proper and effective prosecution of these crimes.

Another way the convention aims to create more effective methods of prosecution is by ensuring timely investigation of allegations of violence, while also giving more power to police to effectively deal with perpetrators. In doing so, the convention seeks to bring these crimes out of the legal realm and into the law enforcement system where they can create an impact for women on the ground. These measures will hopefully also have an impact on reporting rates, which are currently extremely low. The European Commission estimates that only 30% of victims of violence report the most serious incidents to law enforcement. They attribute this trend to barriers involving women’s sense of shame in reporting themselves as a victim of violence, as well as an overall sentiment that reporting will do very little, or nothing, to help their situation.

In terms of protection for victims of violence, the Istanbul Convention includes the need to provide many important services such as shelters, 24/7 telephone helplines, and specialised help. The Convention stipulates that these measures to protect victims should “be based on a gendered understanding of violence against women and domestic violence and shall focus on the human rights and safety of the victim,” as well as “aim at the empowerment and economic independence of women victims of violence,” especially for vulnerable persons and child victims.

While prosecution and protection are extremely important measures to tackle the issue of sexual harassment and violence against women, the Convention also considers prevention to be pivotal to this movement. Thus, it obligates those under the convention to implement various awareness-raising campaigns. For instance, at the level of school curricula, it is stipulated that content on “equality between women and men, non-violent conflict resolution in relationships, and the right to personal integrity” must be included. As well, it focuses on strengthening training for professionals dealing with victims of violence. For instance, after ratifying the convention, Spain created specialised bodies in police corps and the judiciary to deal with violence against women.

To date, the Istanbul Convention has received a great deal of support across the board. UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri called the legislation a “gold standard,” urging the adoption of its practices not only in Europe, but all over the world.

Why does the Istanbul Convention matter?

Despite the omnipresent and recurring nature of sexual harassment and violence against women in Europe and abroad, much of the violence still happens under governments’ noses. With reporting rates low and number of instances high, the question becomes how best to not only implement a proper legal framework to deal with these issues, but also to ensure that legislation on paper is actually being carried out in a way that will have an impact in the day-to-day lives of women. In order to do so, policy must be developed in parallel with an overall mentality shift regarding issues that matter to women most.

The mere fact that this type of behaviour occurs, and is oftentimes seen as ‘normal’ or ‘how life works,’ represents a deeper social problem. Sexual harassment is just the tip of the iceberg that is sexism, articulated hearing speaker Irene Zeilinger, noting the importance of tackling the root causes of this type of behaviour towards women. When speaking about policy makers’ attempt to tackle violence against women, she noted that, “just chipping away at one part of the iceberg” does not work; instead, getting at the larger bulk of ice below the surface needs to be a focus. With this idea in mind, the Istanbul Convention is important for a few key reasons.

First, it recognises violence against women as gender-based violence. While this may seem like an obvious assumption, recognition of the disproportionate nature of violence committed against men versus women is key to creating effective policy. “[Sexual harassment] is not gender symmetric,” said Zeilinger, emphasising the need to write policy with this understanding in mind. Recognising this inequality is important both to understand the frequency at which violence is occurring to one sex more than the other – and thus implement measures to help victims and prevent violence more effectively – as well as to get at the core of why this violence is happening.

In the preamble to the Istanbul Convention, it is stated that the convention recognises that, “women and girls are exposed to a higher risk of gender-based violence than men” and “that violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men.” These distinctions are important to distinguish violence committed against women from regular instances of violence. When asked about the topic, Brigitte Filion noted that, “harassment and violence against women target women because of their gender. It is rooted in gender inequality and gender-related factors that contribute to the social tolerance of the violence and the widespread impunity for it.” Further, she noted that “these factors have been identified by the UN CEDAW Committee as the idea of men’s entitlement over women, the need to assert male control or power, enforce gender roles, or prevent, discourage or punish what is considered to be unacceptable female behaviour.”

In the same vein, the convention also recognises violence and sexual harassment against women as structural. “Sexual harassment is not about attraction… its about power,” said Zeilinger, echoing the preamble to the Istanbul Convention, which states that, “violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between women and men.” This is an extremely important realisation, especially when considering instances of domestic violence, which is stated to “[affect] women disproportionately.” For instance, the conversation at the FEMM Committee Hearing touched upon the serious problem of femicide in Europe, which the World Health Organization calls “the intentional murder of women,” further stating that a “large proportion of femicides are of women in violent relationships, and are committed by current or former partners.” This structural imbalance is not only an issue in the home lives of women, but also in their public and work lives.

What impact does this mentality shift have on policy making?

As many of the speakers at the FEMM Committee mentioned, it is extremely important that policy regarding violence and sexual harassment against women keeps up with the times, creating measures that address the real experiences of women in the EU and around the world. “Policy should be made based on womens’ lived experience, not some academic or legal definitions,” Irene Zeilinger noted, also encouraging policy makers to mainstream the issue of sexual harassment and violence against women into all kinds of policy areas such as defense, transport, and urban planning.

In addition to bringing issues of violence and harassment against women to the forefront of different policy areas, providing measures to ensure that the policy is being implemented and is effective is key. “Passing laws and developing policies is not enough,” remarked Brigitte Filion, noting that without implementation, “these laws and policies will not fulfill their intended goals of ensuring survivors’ safety, strengthening offenders’ accountability and kindling in the minds of all members of the community intolerance for violence against women and girls.”

The recognition of sexual harassment and violence against women as distinct from other forms of violence is the first step towards addressing these issues as they currently exist in the world today. In doing so, governments, law enforcement systems, and civil society will be able to unite under a common understanding of the problems that need to be addressed in order to make widespread change. The Istanbul Convention calls upon all these different actors to step up to the plate and make a difference.

While effective implementation of law will still remain a challenge, the EU’s signing of the Istanbul Convention in June was, without a doubt, a positive step towards achieving gender equality in Europe and across the world. A crucial next step will now be the ratification process both for the EU and amongst member states. In recent news, Norway became the 24th state to ratify the convention on July 5th. As well, the FEMM and LIBE committees voted on various amendments to the EU accession to the Istanbul Convention draft report yesterday, July 12th.

Hayley Stauffer


EU newsroom reports:

Short summaries of the convention:

Full text of the Istanbul Convention:

IPU report on Sexism, harassment and violence against women parliamentarians:

Factsheet on the Istanbul Convention:

‘This is What it Feels Like’ exhibit:

Highlights from the FEMM Committee:

Recording of the FEMM Committee meeting on June 20th:

2016 Study on violence against women:

World Health Organization on femicide:

Image by the Huffington Post:

Adeline Silva Pereira

Après avoir effectué la deuxième année du master Sécurité Globale analyste politique trilingue à l'Université de Bordeaux, j'effectue un stage au sein d'EU Logos afin de pouvoir mettre en pratique mes compétences d'analyste concernant l'actualité européenne sur la défense, la sécurité et plus largement la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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