Why Europe Isn't the Women's Rights Paradise You Think


After extensive news coverage about "binders full of women," horrifying rapes in India, and incredulous outrage about 22 Republican senators voting "no" on the Violence Against Women Act this month, women's issues have been increasingly gestating in the public's consciousness. While the scope, character, and scale of misogyny and violence against women vary tremendously between India and the United States, the underlying problem of women finding themselves disproportionally and unfairly marginalized and at risk still persists in every corner of the world. Europe is no enlightened refuge either: already nine women in Italy and 13 in Spain have been murdered by their husbands, exes, or boyfriends this year alone (yes, eight weeks). According to the co-author of a 2012 study in the American Political Science Review published by Cambridge University Press, sexual assault and domestic violence in Europe "is a bigger danger to women than cancer." 

Indeed, according to the Council of Europe cited in the European Commission's 2010 Eurobarometer report, one in four European women experience domestic violence "at some point in her life." Additionally, the situation is not improving: almost all of the countries in the EU have experienced a rise in "the number of people who know a perpetrator of domestic violence within their circle of friends and family." 

Although the Eurobarometer concedes that it is unclear whether these increases demonstrate "that levels of domestic violence have risen, or whether instead awareness and willingness to talk about these issues have grown," the study recognizes that there has been a "major societal shift" in terms of attitudes toward domestic violence. But has there really been such a dramatic shift?

The huge rise in number of survey respondents who view domestic violence as unacceptable and always punishable from 63% to 86% in only 11 years indicates that a strong external factor (such as increased awareness or social pressures) influenced this change in attitude. The European Observatory, which collects and shares data on domestic violence, and the EU-wide hotline, which assists victims of domestic violence, among other efforts in education and victim services, made strides in increasing awareness, and the emphasis on advancing women's progress may have acted as social pressure on individuals to adapt a greater concern for women's well-being. Yet despite the increase of Europeans who view domestic violence as unacceptable, 52% of respondents believed that it is caused by "the provocative behavior of women." This dissonance is perhaps an indicator that although attitudes have in fact shifted, societal overall values have not. 

Political analyst Robert Worcester, as cited by Britannica Academic Edition, makes the distinction that whereas attitudes are "subject to change if the individual holding them learns of new facts or perspectives that challenge his or her earlier thinking," values are "the deep tides of public mood, slow to change, but powerful" and are relatively resistant to persuasion and the media. Since values are not likely to change within a lifetime, and are largely derived from one's family and early education, it will take generations for a significant change in values regarding the fair treatment of women to occur.

Like American politicians, European politicians continue to struggle to achieve real progress on women's issues. The well-intentioned Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence — which aims to create "an environment of zero-tolerance for violence against women and domestic violence" — is a step in the right direction, and more programs for women to receive information on domestic abuse warning signs and for victims to receive treatment and rehabilitation would undoubtedly improve the lives of European women. What would make the most difference, however, is a change in society's deeply rooted values regarding women in society as a whole. Europe mustn't focus on public opinion polls and view promising statistics as conclusive signs of improvement; true change will come from the people, when they teach their children about respecting women. "People are quicker to accept change in their minds than in their hearts," and so it is the next generation of parents' responsibility to take their positively changed attitudes and transform them into values to instill into their children.