A new European convention could offer women more support after being attacked, but the UK is still to ratify it.
I once visited a women’s refuge to interview the manager for a newspaper piece. The interview took place on the one day of the week that men were allowed across the threshold. Why do men do it, I asked. What is the macho satisfaction in beating up a woman who is generally physically ill-equipped (shorter, lighter, weaker) to defend herself?
‘It’s learned behaviour,’ came the response. ‘Boys see their fathers beating up their mothers and come to believe it’s the way of the world.’
What about sexual abuse? ‘It’s not really about sex,’ the manager told me. ‘It’s a power thing.’
How good is the UK at dealing with these issues? Talk to family lawyers and they will speak of their frustration when a woman keeps returning to her abusive husband or partner. There is nothing the lawyer can do.
Worryingly, there remain blind spots in Europe around the abuse of women, too.
Got the urge to inflict sexual violence against your wife or girlfriend with impunity? Then move to Armenia, Ukraine or Latvia, where all forms of sexual assault against regular or occasional partners are NOT a criminal offence.
Those dastardly foreigners, eh, whatever will they think up next? Except the UK cannot really hold its collective head up high. Some 44% of British women questioned in a recent survey of 42,000 women across the European Union’s 28 member states reported incidents of physical or sexual violence.
More than one-third of women across the EU say they have been subjected to such violence from the age of 15 onwards, while 12% say they were abused as children – half by men that they and their family already knew.
Women also reported widespread stalking, sexual harassment and cyber-harassment via social media, email or text messages. These figures come from a survey published in March by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.
What women are generally NOT reporting is these assaults to the police. Only 14% of them reported the worst instances of abuse by a partner and, surprisingly, even fewer (13%) reported the worst instances of abuse by a non-partner.
The Council of Europe has now added to the debate with its Convention on Violence against Women, which is set to come into effect following its ratification by a 10th member state (Andorra) – although the UK has still to ratify it.
The convention breaks new ground by obliging states to introduce new laws, where they do not already exist, formally to criminalise acts of violence against women. These new laws will override cultural claims, such as ‘honour killings’, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, forced abortion and forced sterilisation.
The convention will also oblige states to investigate any allegations of violence against women, requiring police and other law enforcement agencies to respond to calls for help, collect evidence and assess the risk of further violence.
States must also respect the rights of victims and avoid secondary victimisation while they carry out judicial proceedings.
Governments that have ratified the treaty must train the professionals who have close contact with victims; run periodic awareness-raising campaigns, include gender equality in school curricula; and establish treatment programmes for the perpetrators of domestic violence and sex offenders.
States are also obliged to provide accessible shelters, 24/7 telephone helplines, rape crisis referral centres and be subject to regular monitoring by independent observers.
This is all good stuff and, although some people are sure to whinge about Europe imposing yet more red tape on us, is long overdue because women are suffering or dying daily.
On a personal note, until eight years ago, I was back on the dating circuit after 25 years of marriage. I met several women who had escaped violent husbands. I recall one woman who flinched when I raised my hand to scratch my eyebrow. She had been married to an investment banker.
Another woman carried similar psychological scars. Her ex-husband was a mathematician and physicist.
Neither husband was ever prosecuted. Maybe the new convention, which comes into force on 1 August, will make all the difference. Or maybe not.
Jonathan Rayner is Gazette staff writer