Stop Violence Against Women – What we don’t talk about

According to the European Commission, one in every three women in Europe is forced to endure either physical, psychological or sexualised violence in her life. Globally, an estimated 120 million girls have been victims of sexualised violence. Most of them at the hand of their intimate partner. Think about it: If there are more than three women in your life, you probably know someone who was personally affected. To be honest, even if you only know one single woman, chances are she’s got an experience to share.

We know these statistics. We know these numbers. On some level, we know our society isn’t as fair and enlightened as it might sometimes pretend to be. Still, when movements, like the #metoo campaign, draw attention to the extent of sexual assault and harassment in our societies and encourage victims to speak up about the incidents that affect them, we feel affected. We feel shocked and upset. And we should. Violence against women does not make us angry enough.

Last February, Russia, a country where, according to some estimates, one woman dies every 40 minutes from domestic abuse, passed a law that decriminalised “moderate” violence within families. Now, beatings that result in bruising or bleeding but not broken bones are only punishable by 15 days in prison or a fine – as long as they do not happen more than once a year.

In Poland, only a year ago, the conservative government nearly implemented a law that would have effectively banned women from having abortions. A few months later, they launched an attack on women by passing legislation which drastically reduced women’s access to the morning-after pill. The ones hit hardest by this bill were young women, poor women and victims of sexualised violence who might no longer be able to receive the morning after pill in the necessary time frame.

All over Europe, we’ve seen the growth of right-wing populism – and as a consequence, the rise of populist politicians who often claim to want to ‘protect’ women, for example from sexualised violence and religious oppression. Simultaneously, they are deeply anti-feminist and seek to reinstate traditional gender roles throughout society. The German AFD, for example, now represented in 14 of the 16 German state parliaments, is actively involved in movements against gender equality, marriage equality and LGBT*QIA rights. To them, and to many neo-conservative movements, protecting women doesn’t mean much more than protecting incubators for the European birth rate. Doubling down on this logic, a German court recently punished a German doctor who published information for women about abortions on her website and fined her 6’000 euros, because the “the lawmakers do not want abortion to be talked about in public as if it is a normal thing”.

It seems like violence against women is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Because although we know these facts, we rarely talk about how the issues behind them affect us personally. For the survivors, the taboo and the silence we experience in everyday life is torture. You know, rationally, that you are not the only one, and yet you feel so terribly alone. You know that in order to find others you must break the silence. You also know that if you make a mistake, if you tell the wrong people, you will get punished. Not everyone will understand or even want to understand. For everyone who was deeply affected and disturbed by the #metoo movement, there was someone who doubted their acquaintances’ experience. Someone who told them they were overreacting, they should learn to take a joke, they were drawing attention away from “the real problems”.

It’s this sort of thinking that enables violence against women. Our society doesn’t see the personal borders of women as a serious yes-or-no issue, but as a scale. Breaking the rules a woman sets is portrayed as a funny game where treating them however you want is the ultimate goal. In a 2015 study, almost one in three male college students admitted they would force a woman to sexual intercourse, but many would not consider that rape. Our society does not think of women as thinking, breathing, basic human beings who are capable of making their own choices – instead it treats them as property that is to be used, controlled and regulated. And property doesn’t deserve human dignity.

Seeing the sad state women’s rights are in in Europe, but also in the US and all over the world, I wish there was an easy and fast way to solve violence against women. There isn’t. Still, there are things we can do.

We can ask our politicians to emphasize women’s rights and protection from violence. If your country hasn’t signed the Istanbul convention on preventing and combating violence against women, or if is doing nothing to apply it – write to a member of parliament and ask them to take on the issue. If your city or region is implementing austerity measures that affect institutions for women victims of violence – protest, either in parliament or on the streets. If anti-feminist populists are standing for election – find other candidates and support them. Even if you don’t succeed, do your best to make it harder for them to roll back women’s rights.

On a personal level, simply do what this text is doing here. Think about violence against women. Ask your female friends what their experiences are. Be sure to not reproduce violent behaviour, and recognize that disrespect of the personal safety of women begins in everyday life – being touched against our will, hearing abuse, not being heard when we speak up against harassment. Those aren’t one-off incidents, but daily occurrences in a culture where people will actively take women down because they can and because they want to remind women of their role in the world. And every day, women have to fight back, have to struggle in order to occupy space, in order to be seen, in order to be safe. Talk to women about violence, listen to them, believe them, spread their voices – and please, get angry.

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