Where now for the EU in addressing violence against women?

By Nicolas Beger, Director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office

Living free from violence is a universal right. And international law enshrines the right of women to be protected from all forms of violence.  Yet as we celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, one in five women in Europe is at risk of violence (Council of Europe (CoE) figures). Each year, 180,000 women in Europe suffer Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – a violent practice which, according to European Parliament (EP) figures, has affected half a million women and girls in Europe.

These statistics are shocking, but are more than just numbers. Politicians and the public urgently need to harness this outrage, protect those behind the statistics, and end violence against women (VAW).  The European Union (EU) has already taken promising steps to tackle VAW. Last November, the Commission released its action plan: Towards the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation. This seeks to end FGM through professional training, civil society funding, exchange of good practices, and provision of data.

Whilst progress has been made on FGM, work is needed to combat all forms of VAW. The new Commission and EP can build on this momentum and move VAW up the EU agenda.

By meeting its predecessor’s unfulfilled commitment to produce a strategic framework combating VAW, the incoming Commission will have a unique opportunity to combat VAW. Through its monitoring, advisory and budgetary powers, the incoming EP can work with the Commission to make VAW a priority, and translate the FGM action plan into reality.

Current and candidate Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) can also pledge to end VAW and FGM. And voters can urge them to do so.

But the EU institution’s role is only part of the puzzle. To date, member states’ work to combat VAW has been short-term and limited in scope, focusing often on prosecution over protection and prevention.  Preventing VAW is essential to eliminating it. Member states can lead by adopting a comprehensive cross-border approach involving all relevant actors: healthcare professionals, educators, policymakers, and – crucially – women and girls themselves. Member states can also take concrete steps to eliminate VAW by committing to a common approach in June’s European Council conclusions on VAW.

Comprehensive work to eliminate VAW will however be most effective when EU institutions, member states, and civil society work collectively. A key test for this collective approach will be ensuring EU accession to the CoE’s Istanbul convention. Only three out of the 20 EU signatories have ratified the convention to develop comprehensive measures to prevent violence, protect women and girls, and prosecute offenders. The institutions should work to ensure that all EU member states sign and ratify it to protect women and girls.  It is only under such a comprehensive, holistic and integrated umbrella that the EU’s commitment to protecting women and girls will comply with international standards, and eliminate VAW.

On Saturday, people across Europe and beyond will remember the plight of women and girls suffering routine and regular violence. But those living in jeopardy now need more than just one day a year.

By ensuring those at risk receive due attention in and beyond 2014, the EU can collectively help to protect them, so living free from the threat of violence becomes a universal reality for all women and girls.  The Human Rights and Democracy Network (HRDN) and Amnesty International are calling on current and candidate MEPs to pledge to put human rights at the centre of EU policy. MEPs can also pledge to end VAW and FGM; and protect migrants’ and asylum seekers’ rights.

This piece was orginally published in New Europe on 3 March 2014.