Violence against women and domestic violence are pervasive throughout the EU and are estimated to affect 1 in 3 women in the EU. On International Day of Women’s Rights, March 8th 2022, the European Commission presented EU-wide rules to combat violence against women and domestic violence. The proposed Directive will criminalise rape based on lack of consent, female genital mutilation and cyber violence, which includes: non-consensual sharing of intimate images; cyberstalking; cyber harassment; and cyber incitement to violence or hatred. The new rules also strengthen victims’ access to justice and encourage the Member States to implement a one-stop-shop mechanism, meaning that all support and protection services would be located in the same place. The victims should be able to claim compensation in the course of criminal proceedings. The proposal also calls for adequate and specialised protection and support, for instance, through free-of-charge helplines and rape crisis centres. It also provides targeted support for groups with specific needs or at risk, including women fleeing armed conflict.
The key elements of the proposed new rules:
- Criminalisation of rape, female genital mutilation, and cyber violence
The Commission is proposing to criminalise the following offences across the EU: (i) rape based on the lack of consent; (ii) Female Genital Mutilation (FGM); (iii) cyberstalking;(iv) non-consensual sharing of intimate images; (v) cyber harassment; and (vi) cyber incitement to hatred or violence.
The proposal complements the Digital Services Act (DSA) making it operational by defining illegal online content related to cyber violence. It will also allow for quick judicial proceedings to have relevant online content removed swiftly.
- Safe reporting and risk assessment procedures
The proposal tackles the underreporting of violence against women that still exists today. It introduces new ways to report acts of violence, which are gender-sensitive, safer, easier, more accessible – including online – and child-friendly. Professionals, such as healthcare workers or psychiatrists, would no longer be hindered by confidentiality regimes to report any reasonable suspicions of an imminent risk of serious physical harm. Authorities would also be obliged to conduct individual risk assessments when the victim first makes contact, to assess the risk posed by the offender. On this basis, authorities would need to provide immediate protection through emergency barring or protection orders.
- Respect for victims’ privacy in judicial proceedings and right to compensation
The Commission is proposing that evidence or questions relating to the victims’ private life, especially their sexual history, can only be used when strictly necessary. Victims would have the right to claim full compensation from offenders for damages, including the costs of healthcare, support services, lost income, physical and psychological harm. They should also be able to obtain compensation in the course of criminal proceedings.
- Support for victims through helplines and rape crisis centres
To address the very specific needs of victims of sexual violence, the Commission is proposing that Member States provide dedicated services including rape crisis centres. Victims at an increased risk of violence, including women fleeing armed conflict, should receive targeted support from Member States. National helpline to support victims of violence against women and domestic violence should be made available 24/7, all year round, and be free of charge. When a victim is a child, authorities should provide age-appropriate support in the best interests of the child. Victims of cyber violence will also be entitled to adequate support, including advice on how to seek legal help and how to remove online content. In cases of sexual harassment at work, external counseling services should be made available for victims and employers.
- Better coordination and cooperation
Member States should exchange best practices and consult each other in criminal cases, including via Eurojust and the European Judicial Network. To track progress and monitor the situation in all Member States, the Commission is also proposing an obligation on Member States to collect data on violence against women and domestic violence to feed into an EU-wide survey every five years.
On the occasion of the International Day of Women’s Rights, the Commission also published the 2022 edition of the European Commission’s annual report on gender equality in the EU. 2021 saw important steps taken in terms of legislative proposals, namely on pay transparency and adequate minimum wages in the EU, as well as on a new Digital Services Act (DSA) which will help to protect users online. In December 2021, the Commission also proposed to include hate speech and hate crime in the list of EU crimes.
The report also indicates that women have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. During 2020, women’s participation in the workforce declined by 0.5% from 2019, after a decade of steady increase. Violence against women and domestic violence also remains widespread in the EU and has also been exacerbated by the pandemic, including online violence.
As the report also shows, failing to address violence against women and domestic violence costs money – an estimated €289 billion a year.
Members of the College said:
President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said: “I want Europe to be at the side of women with protection and support. I want a society where violence against women is prevented, condemned, and prosecuted when it occurs. The time for justice and equality is now. That’s why we come forward today with the right rules to accelerate change.”
Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Vera Jourová said: “Too many women and girls suffer from rape, harassment or abuse. There is no place for this in modern Europe. Unfortunately, the situation is not getting better fast enough and violence is soaring online. Today, we are proposing for the first time EU wide law to combat violence against women. This will offer real tools for victims. The perpetrators must face consequences of their actions.”
Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli said: “Violence against women impinges directly on women’s equality, impacting our ability to thrive and lead in society. The Commission’s aim and commitments are clear. Today, we are pushing forward a comprehensive legislative proposal on combating violence against women and domestic violence while living up to international standards. With this proposal, we will make a difference to women and girls across Europe.”
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