Shocking scale of abuse against women outlined in EU agency report

The findings of the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency survey on violence against women are important and shocking. The study of 42,000 women across 28 states records that one in three say they experienced physical or sexual abuse since the age of 15, one in 12 in the last year. One in five (18 per cent) has experienced stalking; over one in two has been confronted with sexual harassment. In Ireland a quarter (26 per cent) say they have experienced physical or sexual abuse since the age of 15, while 27 per cent were abused as children, a third of those, sexually.

The report is a trove of background data on abuse – from levels of stalking to types of abuse and abusers, on the importance of alcohol, victims’ emotional responses, and personal and societal responses which can help inform policy. Among its most important recommendations are a call for national action programmes; the recognition of domestic violence as a public not a private offence, and the EU’s accession to the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women.

But if the report gives a general sense of the scale of the problems, its comparative data pose difficult questions. Is it really the case that rates of violence against women are highest by some margin in states most often praised for their gender equality – Denmark, Finland and Sweden? Denmark appears to have double the rate of violence of Ireland, while national statistics for rape vary between 47 per 100,000 in Sweden to 3 per 100,000 in Croatia, Malta, Portugal, or Slovakia.

National comparisons are heavily distorted by profound variations in such things as police crime reporting practices and social taboos on discussing and reporting both physical and sexual abuse. But is there also a reality that in societies in which gender equality is more developed women may find themselves more exposed by virtue, say, of being at work. National differences may be more than perceptions. This study is a key first step, but only that.