Violence Against Women: An Undeclared War in Europe












By Solène Savarit

According to the WHO’s 2018 report, globally, “across their lifetime, 1 in 3 women are subjected to physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence from a non-partner.”

I would like to warmly thank Mrs. C. Faucher and Mrs. M. Kerivel, two women committed to fighting for women, for having generously devoted their time and expertise during the interviews for this article.

Cécile Faucher has dedicated her entire career to working with women victims of violence as a former project director at “SOS femmes en Seine Saint Denis“, a French association that helps women who are victims of domestic violence. Although she is retired now, she continues to serve as a member of the association’s board of directors.

Manon Kerivel is currently pursuing a master’s degree in European and International Studies, specialising in the European Union and Globalisation Programme at the Institute of European Studies of Paris VIII. She also holds the position of national secretary at the feminist association “Choisir la cause des femmes“, which was founded by Simone de Beauvoir and Gisèle Halimi in 1971. Through her work at the association, she is currently involved in updating the legislative package of the “Most Favoured European Women Clause.” To this end, she has been travelling to various European states, meeting with different institutions and women. On the 8th of March 2023, she organised an event at the European Parliament in Brussels to raise awareness about the Clause.

Gender-based Violence: What is the Situation?

“One day she came to pick up her kids (at the ex-partner parent’s house), she put them in the car, she got in the car but then her ex-partner arrived and shot her in the head in front of the kids.” This was not the first time that Mrs X. was confronted by her ex-partner. Indeed, he had already tried a few years earlier to kill Mrs X. with a knife without success while she was working and consequently went to prison. Mrs X. should have been protected by the system and any type of contact with her ex-partner should have been avoided after his release from prison: it could’ve saved her life.

Story of Mrs X. told by C. Faucher during the interview

How do you define this issue?

According to the official definition of violence against women given by the European Union, there are different types of violence. Indeed, it can be categorised as direct and indirect. There is violence that can be physical, sexual but also psychological or perpetuated through economic harm.

This violence aimed at women is called systemic, which means that all the violence that they experience is due to the way our society works. Consequently, a change in our societies is needed, but are the national states and the EU ready for this?

What is the current procedure to support these women?

Following violence, there are multiple types of consequences for these women: physical, psychological, social, administrative, or economic. Consequently, different types of support are needed for each consequence, for example, through hotlines, help centres or the judicial system.

Concerning what takes place after the victim is able to leave its abuser and speak out about its experience, C. Faucher highlighted something interesting during the interview. She explained that “these violent men don’t want to lose their victim that easily. This kind of man (usually being their husband or partner) wants his victim to fall apart, to be destroyed socially, mentally, or physically: “You belong to me, or you don’t exist”.”

For this reason, these women are mostly in danger “when they start speaking and especially try to separate and even more if they leave.” This is why the judicial system is of utmost importance. How can the State and the EU protect these women who choose to speak out? They have made the decision to trust the system, but unfortunately, today the system lets them down. Taking France as an example, according to a report by the French Ministry of the Interior, among the 102 women who died in 2020 at the hands of their spouse or ex-spouse, nearly one in five had filed a complaint beforehand. This situation is similarly prevalent across the European continent.

What about femicides?

It is the most severe form of violence. Is femicide a murder? The answer is both yes and no. The distinction between murder and femicide lies in the motive of the perpetrator. Murder is the intentional killing of a person, whereas femicide, as defined by international organisations, refers to the murder of women because of their status as women, whether it occurs within or outside the family.

However, the problem we face today is that each state interprets this definition in its own way. The measurement of femicides is crucial, as many victims of femicide were previously subjected to other forms of violence. The European Union has several agencies responsible for collecting data on femicides, such as the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights or the European Institute for Gender Equality.

Nevertheless, during the interview with C. Faucher, she emphasised the difficulty in defining the boundaries of this phenomenon, which poses challenges to accurate data collection. The following questions arise:

  • Should we only include women who are killed by their partners?
  • What about women who are driven to suicide due to psychological violence?
  • Should trans women be included in the data?

The divergence of opinion about these topics is present in the Member States as well as at European level.

What About the European Union?

All Member States of the European Union share a common set of values,  including equality. Indeed, Article 2 of the Treaty on European Unione (TEU) explicitly promotes the value of “equality between women and men” as well as the respect of human rights, which should encompass the protection of all women within the Union from any form of violence. However, can we truly assert that all the 27 members genuinely uphold these values?

The situation mentioned above highlights both similarities and differences across the EU. Member States approach the issue in varying ways. Spain, Sweden, and France exhibit active engagement, whereas Poland and Hungary lag behind. How can we account for this discrepancy? The explanation is quite simple – it boils down to political will.

This critical point was thoroughly discussed in both interviews. Faucher, referring to the French example, mentioned that the creation of the first French hotline (3919) was “a number that was set up more than 25 years ago by the National Federation of Women’s Solidarity, in other words by the associations. Thus, the initiative did not initially come from the State.

Looking at the European level, Kerivel explained, “To see some actions, it mainly depends on the political will of the Member States themselves as nation-states and as members of the European Union. This is evident in the Spanish example, where the country is presided over by a socialist government in a coalition with the far-left Podemos, which makes a difference in terms of women’s rights.” Unfortunately, countries like Hungary, Poland, or Italy are unlikely to follow Spain’s path. The EU could potentially serve as a solution to “bypass” these hostile governments and provide assistance to all women in its Member States.

What has been done so far?

The Istanbul Convention is the first legally binding international treaty on preventing and combating violence against women. It provides a clear definition of violence against women, along with measures for prevention, protection, prosecution, international cooperation, non-discrimination and monitoring.

The Convention was adopted by the Council of Europe in Istanbul in 2011. Nevertheless, its entry into force varied among EU countries: Italy ratified it in 2013, France in 2014, and Germany in 2017. Indeed, while all the Member States have signed the Convention, only 21 have ratified it: Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, and the Czech Republic have not. Additionally, the Polish government expressed its intention to withdraw from the convention in 2020, but this has not yet been implemented.

Regrettably, most of the Member States that ratified the Convention have implemented only few of its provisions. What they label as “innovative” in their national plans to combat discrimination and violence against women often signifies the delayed implementation of the Convention they ratified years ago. According to a study for the European Parliament in October 2022, only fifteen Member States have taken steps to criminalise psychological, physical, economic, and sexual forms of domestic violence. This raises concerns about the actions taken by the remaining twelve EU Member States.

An EU-born instrument worthy mentioning is the Victims’ Rights Directive (2012/29/EU) It establishes minimum standards for the rights, protection, and support of crime victims, ensuring that those who have been harmed by crime are recognised and treated with respect. Also, it guarantees their right to protection, assistance, and access to justice. The provisions of the Directive apply to victims of all crimes, with special attention given to certain types of victims. Notably, victims of gender-based violence are placed at the core of the protection provided by the Directive. This EU instrument is essential in addressing gender-based violence within its Member States, especially in the absence of specific legislative texts on the matter.

In addition to the Victims’ Rights Directive, there are other EU initiatives aimed at establishing a legal framework to prevent and combat violence against women in Europe. These include the Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025; the Anti-Trafficking Directive (2011/36/EU), and the ongoing Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and the Council on combating violence against women and domestic violence.

What are the Challenges for the Future?

The EU’s involvement is increasing, but its actions remain insufficient in concrete terms. One major challenge is the gathering of accurate data. Currently, available data is unreliable due to authorities’ failure to promptly register and often question womens’ complaints. For example, a study by NousToutes in 2021 revealed that in France, more than half of women have had their assault complaints refused. Will we believe women only after they have been murdered?

Moreover, there is a lack of monitoring of Member States to ensure they implement the measures undertaken by the EU, like mentioned previously. Another challenge lies in strengthening the judicial framework. Nevertheless, we could ask ourselves: does the EU have the competences to act in this field?

Kerivel answered, “The EU has the competences, they can do it, the only issue is political will. If the States want it, there is no problem for the EU to implement measures. (…) The EU doesn’t have a direct capability to act in this field, but as explained in Article 2 of the TFEU and Article 5 of the TEU, the EU can self-authorise competences if the aim is to achieve its objectives.”

This can be achieved through the principle of subsidiarity. In the area of its non-exclusive competences, the EU may act only if – and insofar as – the objective of a proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States but could be better achieved at EU level. (…) Nonetheless, many states are still very suspicious of this issue because of national identity, particularly in the case of extreme right-wing populist or conservative governments. This is why it is often said that it’s not a problem of competence but of political will.

To conclude on a positive note, there is hope that progress will be made with the Spanish presidency of the Council, starting on July 1, 2023. Hopefully the Spanish will prioritise addressing violence against women within the Council.

This undeclared war is far from over. We should all strive for progress because women’s rights are human rights.


There are different national hotlines to listen and orientate women to get the help they need. A European number was created last October, and in April 2023 all the EU Member States should all have connected their national line to it: 116 016