The European Council and Parliament have agreed on a law to address the concerning trends regarding domestic violence, sexual assault, and the broader issue of gendered violence in member states.
The law agreed on this week is the first coordinated effort to address the issue among its member states following the 2011 Istanbul convention.
“For many women in Europe, sexual violence, domestic violence, street harassment or online abuse are daily threats. Moreover, women all too often pay with their lives for relationship breakups. Even forced marriages and genital mutilation have not been completely eradicated from our society. We must put an end to this,” said Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Paul Van Tigchelt, who is also the country’s minister of justice.
“With the new directive, the member states are taking important steps to collectively stand up against these severe crimes, both through an emphasis on prevention and consistent punishment,” he added.
The proposal calls for stricter criminalisation of physical, non-consensual violence against women, including but not limited to cases of physical battery, sexual assault, and genital mutilation. It also highlights the threat of less direct but equally distressing means by which women are coerced into dangerous situations without their consent, pointing out the widespread inadequacy of law enforcement entities within member states to protect victims of online abuse.
The capacity to identify and classify the most prevalent methods of online harassment has been identified and condemned as largely inadequate by the commission.
Many individual member states were assessed as having wholly inadequate legislation about the criminalisation of online sexual harassment, unsolicited sexual advances/photos, and other forms of sexual violence that exist online.
Malta, for example, only criminalised revenge porn in 2016.
The commission also highlighted the emergence of an entirely new threat, one that poses grievous new risks to consent online: the prevalence of deepfake images and videos, which allows potential abusers to fabricate realistic, detailed, sexually explicit material without one’s consent.
The commission’s proposed solution to these issues revolves around a coordinated effort to invest in crisis centres and those who staff them, aiming to encourage victims to report any abuse they may have experienced immediately.
The promise of these resolutions, especially in their capacity to identify the problems exacerbating the suffering of women and victims in the EU, does not come without blind spots and contradictions.
States failed to reach an agreement on the absolute criminalisation of instances where consent may have been violated despite the effort to promote consent as the basis for all sexual relationships.
Marie-Colline Leroy, Belgian Secretary of State for Gender Equality, said, “This is a big step forward to better protect women and girls from violence, whether at home, at work, on our streets, off-line or online,” adding it sends a strong message: we no longer accept that if you are a woman, you are more at risk than if you are a man.”
The new law would criminalise offences such as female genital mutilation, forced marriage, revenge porn, cyberstalking, cyber harassment, cyber incitement to hatred or violence, aggravating circumstances such as repeated exercise of the crime and using extreme levels of violence.
The law must now be approved by EU member states’ representatives in the Council before being adopted in the Council and European Parliament.