Strasbourg, 21 April 2011
Today’s date (21 April) has a particular meaning for me. Several years ago, at the start of my professional life at the European Commission of Human Rights, I took part in the first case in which the Commission had to address complaints of torture: the interstate case brought by Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands against Greece following the coup d’état by the Greek military in the morning of 21 April 1967.
I participated in a witness hearing and I will never forget the evidence given by Anastasia Tsirka. Arrested for allegedly having engaged in subversive political activities, she was subjected to torture at the hands of the Athens secret police and kicked down the stairs, as a result of which she lost the baby she was carrying.
This was more than 40 years ago and yet it represented a defining moment which convinced me that something had to be done to stop violence against women, in whatever form.
And it has happened! Earlier this month, the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers approved a text that will change the lives of many women in Europe. Taking on a pioneering role in the field of gender equality, it agreed on an international treaty to prevent and combat violence against women. Governments that ratify the treaty will have to take immediate action to criminalise and prosecute a number of acts that all too often go unpunished: rape, domestic violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, sexual harassment, forced abortion and forced sterilisation. Excuses on the grounds of culture, custom, religion or so-called “honour” can no longer be used.
Like elsewhere in the world, women in Europe experience many forms of violence at the hands of partners, whether married or not, relatives, friends and colleagues. Sometimes at the hands of complete strangers. We can never know the exact number of women who are victims but we know it is wrong and we know it is a huge problem.
How does the new treaty help you, the women of Europe? The answer is simple: it protects you from gender-based violence, anywhere, anytime, whether you are out with friends, at work or at school, at home with your family or partner. Whether you have just moved to Europe or have always lived here, whether you want to get married or not, have children or not and whether your partner is a man or a woman.
And for those that have had to live through a violent experience, it offers help and support: medical help, practical help, but also help and support in seeing the perpetrator brought to justice. Governments are asked to set up or fund a range of services that are crucial for victims. These include shelters, around-the-clock helplines, as well as medical and legal counselling.
None of these measures will work if we continue to turn a blind eye to the problem. This is why the treaty aims at changing the hearts and minds of women and men across Europe by raising awareness and teaching us the perils of gender stereotyping and violent behaviour. I encourage you to be part of this action for change and break the silence!
I continue to analyse why women are so often victims of violence, in particular domestic violence at the hands of men. And my answer is: in the best case scenario, men are frustrated at their loss of control as a result of the emancipation of women and in the worst case scenario men continue to treat women as objects.
Do I think that all women in Europe are prone to becoming victims of violence? No, of course not. Do I think that all men are inherently violent? Again, no. But I do think that no woman nowhere in the world should suffer physical or sexual violence. That is why I welcome this milestone achievement in making sure that women are safe from violence. I am hopeful that many governments will implement the treaty to give it real meaning.