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13th Apr 2024

EU's first gender-based violence law a 'big disappointment'

  • Leading MEPs Evin Incir (S&D) and Frances Fitzgerald (EPP) warned: 'There is clearly unfinished business' (Photo: European Parliament)
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A "historic day" was marked on Tuesday (6 February) in the fight against gender-based violence, with the adoption of the first-ever EU law on combating violence against women — which still needs to be formally approved by member states and the European Parliament.

"For the first time, the European Union sends a clear message that we take violence against women seriously as an existential threat to our security," leading MEP Frances Fitzgerald (EPP) told reporters in Strasbourg, after the provisional agreement was reached between the parliament and the council late on Tuesday afternoon.

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The directive includes rules on online crimes, as well as female genital mutilation and forced marriage as offences under EU law. But there's one big omission, and even leading MEPs couldn't hide their disappointment.

"There is clearly unfinished business," said Fitzgerald. "That's a very big disappointment given the scale of the statistics of violence across the Union," she added, referring to the lack of consent-based rape legislation, i.e. only 'yes' means yes, the biggest demand of the women's movement.

The other leading MEP, Swedish socialist Evin Incir, said: "I don't understand how combating gender-based violence can be so controversial that there are so many member state obstacles and prevented us to include a consent-based rape legislation" — a definition included in the Istanbul Convention, signed by all member states and ratified by the vast majority of them.

Ursula von der Leyen herself called for consent-based EU legislation in her annual State of the Union speech in 2023.

"I would like that we cast into law another basic principle: 'No means no'," she said in the plenary in September. "There can be no true equality without freedom from violence".

But legal concerns about the EU's powers in criminal law were the reason why member states such as France and Germany did not support including rape as a criminal offence — and the main reason why this directive, which was originally proposed in March 2022, stalled at Council level.

For NGOs such as Amnesty International, the directive "falls far short" in the fight against gender-based violence, said its Europe director Eve Geddie, calling for greater ambition at national level — as a directive only sets minimum standards for member states, which can go further when transposing it into national law.

"While it contains positive elements, many excellent proposals by the commission and parliament that would have ushered in strong and binding measures were needlessly shot down by member states," she said, referring to the exclusion of a harmonised consent-based definition of rape, as well as the obligation to ensure safe reporting mechanisms for undocumented women. 

Similarly, the European Disability Forum (EDF) regretted that forced sterilisation was not included as a criminal offence in the agreement reached, given that 12 member states still allow forced sterilisation of disabled people (mostly women) in some cases, including Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic and Denmark.

"It should have been an obvious step to ban such a barbaric practice, to stop women being sterilised against their will and without their knowledge or consent," complained Pirkko Mahlamäki of EDF.

At the parliament's request, the directive includes a review clause so that in five years' time the law's progress can be assessed and some new offences can be defined.

Leading MEPs also highlighted some "important achievements" in terms of protection, early prevention, access to justice and data collection, and hoped that the review clause would bring further changes in the future.

"In Spain, we passed a gender-violence law in 2004 and we have had to wait until 2022 to include rape as sex without consent. You learn to walk by taking steps, and today we have taken a very important step," Spanish MEP Eugenia Rodríguez Palop (The Left) said.

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