Until recently, I had not been able to understand why, despite its prevalence, sexual and gender-based violence in Western Europe1 is not part of the public debate as it is in Latin America or in countries across sub-Saharan Africa such as Libera and Sierra Leone, for example. In my experience, the issue is discussed in Western Europe, but mainly as a characteristic of underdevelopment, inherent in the absence of the rule of law and in male chauvinist cultures attributed to Latin America or even Southern Europe. A 2017 Eurobarometer survey on gender equality illustrates the prevalence of gender stereotypes amongst women, which subsist along the belief that gender equality has been achieved in politics, and to a lesser extent at work and in leadership. Today, apart from civil society organisations engaged in advocacy, or academics researching GBV, or when a particular case of violence against women causes a media furore, it seems that most people don’t challenge, either through discussion or protest, this type of violence as they do in Latin America.
One possible explanation is the extremely high number of these incidents in Latin America that end in brutal deaths. When people read or hear every day about hate crimes and about women and girls, trans and transvestite people who are found dead, wrapped in blankets or plastic bags, their bodies dismembered and dumped on a patch of wasteland or in streams, in suitcases or rubbish tips, with or without clothes, with signs of torture or traces of semen, at the very least it gives people a lot to talk about.
But it is also possible that the cause and effect of the lack of visibility given to such a prevalent problem is that gender-based violence – and violence against women in particular – is usually seen as a strictly personal matter. The Atria Institute for emancipation and women’s history in the Netherlands reported on an online national survey conducted in 2010 which documented the reasons why the victims of physical and sexual violence in the country do not go to the police. The most common reasons were that women considered these episodes of violence a private matter and wanted to resolve the situation themselves; that they did not feel that the incident was serious enough; that they wanted to keep it secret; that they did not believe anyone could help them; or that they felt ashamed and were afraid of the perpetrator. A 2016 Eurobarometer survey on domestic violence had similar findings. Additionally, the survey found that European women don’t speak about their experiences of GBV because they lack proof, or the situation is unclear, or because they don’t want to cause trouble.
Although these taboos are slowly fading away, and in the Netherlands an increasing number of women now report such crimes, convictions for sexual violence are still very rare. This has to do with how complicated and ineffective the reporting process is. In the Netherlands, reporting a crime is a two-step process. First you have to notify the police that the incident happened (this is not an official statement). After providing such information, the victim may decide to report the case officially. Of the 37% such cases that are officially reported, 58% are abandoned, usually due to lack of evidence. While the presumption of innocence is a fundamental principle of justice, in a context of pervasive GBV where rape often happens behind closed doors, mechanisms ought to be put in place that can lead to conviction in rape cases, even when there is little evidence. However, there is little indication of steps being taken in this direction, despite the Netherlands’ recent recognition of all forms of involuntary sex as rape. This situation both discourages victims from reporting and encourages rapists or stalkers to continue committing crimes with impunity.
Thus, preventing and resolving gender-based violence is seen as the responsibility of the individual, and this is compounded by the fact that the state itself often keeps this type of violence invisible. In the Netherlands, for example, not only do the police take years to deal with reports of rape, they also coerce the women reporting it not to discuss the incident, since they argue that this could hinder the prosecution of the case. This not only makes it difficult for victims to receive appropriate support or even get help from their close friends, it also prevents the problem from becoming the subject of public debate. Similarly, many EU countries (including the Netherlands) are still not providing gender-disaggregated data when they report annual homicide rates. Because of this, the number of femicides in the EU is probably much higher than reports suggest, given that in 2016, official figures classified only 788 women in the region as victims of femicide. In other words, when women do not talk about it and are unaware of the magnitude of the violence we suffer, we gradually fail to recognise our oppression. This lack of awareness deprives us of our agency and keeps us from organising ourselves to demand action by the state.