One of the obstacles in tackling gender-based violence is that it is still not fully understood as a societal problem with a significant part of the European population continuing to believe that such violence is predominantly a domestic issue.

This has a knock-on effect on victims who may either choose to not speak up and report the violence or, when they do, they may even be blamed for it.

Far too often, victims are questioned for a supposed trigger, either in their behaviour or their clothing, as though perpetrators commit violence for a justifiable reason.

This shift of focus is not rare. Indeed, 27 per cent of EU citizens believe that non-consensual sex can be justified in certain situations. However, non-consensual sex is rape. 

There is never a justification for gender-based violence and domestic violence. Aligning society’s understanding about this is a challenge because of how deeply entrenched in our culture such justifications can be. For instance, certain masterpieces of art and literature, respectively, compromise us by the beauty that depicts a narrative of attempted rape.

Consider the myth of Daphne and Apollo. In Ovid’s telling of the story, the god is shot with Cupid’s arrow and is excused because he cannot help but ‘fall in love’ with the nymph. Ovid’s version depicts a frightened Daphne fleeing Apollo as he chases her. While Daphne is saved from the assault of her human form, she is nonetheless forcibly silenced and objectified for the sake of Apollo’s desire.

Changing societies and addressing misconceptions about gender-based violence requires early education, including sex education, and investing in a comprehensive ‘zero tolerance to violence’ public policy approach. Social movements, such as #MeToo, have proven to be real forces for change.

The movement helped millions of women find the courage to stand up and speak out. On its part, the European Commission is working to raise broader awareness through campaigns such as #SayNoStopVAW and the UN-led UNiTE. This increased attention to gender-based violence is long overdue and must be followed with a broad range of changes.

Men need to be part of this effort in much greater numbers too. We will only change the narrative with everyone’s contribution. It is equally important to engage with perpetrators, not least to prevent them from reoffending. The right approach here is crucial.

Perpetrator programmes must provide broader education on gender-based violence and its impact and limit intervention to medical treatment for substance abuse or mental health issues.

According to a 2020 survey, 58 per cent of girls experienced online harassment- Helena Dalli

When it comes to protecting victims, our duty is to prevent secondary victimisation, which is itself a result of a poor understanding of gender-based violence. Every EU member state must invest more in training professionals, including judges, police services and social workers, not least so they can ask the right questions and identify the right pointers.

The European Judicial Training Network receives €11 million a year from the EU budget and has run seminars in the past on gender and domestic violence, on sexual exploitation in trafficking and on victim’s rights in cases of violence against women and children.

Our understanding of gender-based violence must be kept up to date with new technologies. According to a 2020 survey, 58 per cent of girls experienced online harassment and 50 per cent said they experience it more online than in the street and these figures have only risen in recent years. The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns drove many of us online and underscored that our digital realities must also be part of a safe online environment.

Gender-based violence can and does take place anywhere, including at work, at school, in the street, or online. It affects a person’s health and well-being, as well as restricting their possibility to thrive in society. It is neither a given, nor is it an inherent part of any culture and can be prevented. The first step towards fully eliminating it is recognising it for what it is.

This is what the European Commission will do with its upcoming first legislative proposal on combatting and preventing gender-based violence and domestic violence.

On this International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, you too can do your part to address gender-based violence. Be vigilant to the problem and raise it in your social circles.

Make your stance against such violence known. We need everyone’s support to tackle this scourge.

Helena Dalli is European Commissioner for Equality.

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