Sarah Schlitz is Belgian Secretary of State for Gender equality, Equal opportunity and Diversity in the Belgian Federal Government since October 2020. She is a cycling, feminist and human rights activist – against racism and for LGBTQIA+ rights -, and she is known for her commitments in the field and close links with civil society across the country. Formerly a municipal councilor in the City of Liege, she became a federal deputy in October 2018, and was then elected Secretary of State by Ecolo Party activists.
The “Stop Femicide” bill has just been adopted by the Belgian Council of Ministers last Friday. Could you tell us more about its main progresses and the process of its construction?
This law has three main components: defining, measuring and protecting. The first part responds to a commitment made in our plan to combat gender-based violence adopted last year, in line with the Istanbul Convention. It involves taking over the annual count of femicides from civil society, with official statistics. Even today, it is a painstaking task carried out by volunteers who compile all the press articles on this subject. In order to keep official statistics, we realized that we had to define the phenomenon we wanted to monitor. We worked on the definition aspect, which eventually became a very broad aspect. We defined four types of femicides because we wanted to include all forms and not to make some women invisible. This also allows us to the statistics. We took the opportunity to define other phenomena related to feminicide in the continuum of violence. Among other things, the law defines economic violence, sexual violence, online violence and psychological violence. Coercive control was also introduced into the definitions.
The second part concerns commitment, statistics and monitoring, with three new mechanisms introduced. Firstly, an annual report containing statistics on the number of femicides sorted down by type of feminicide. The characteristics of the victim, the perpetrator and the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator will be included. It can be a family member (up to the 4th degree), a spouse, an ex-spouse. It is important to situate the femicide. The second mechanism, based on these figures, is the publication of a biannual report that will include recommendations for policy makers. The last mechanism is the setting up of an interdisciplinary committee that will include members of the justice system, the police, but also academics and members of civil society, to carry out qualitative analyses of the femicides that occurred in the previous year. We will look back at the different stages that took place in order to identify the dysfunctions and the reasons why they happened. This interdisciplinary committee will also make recommendations to policymakers.
The third part concerns concrete measures to protect victims. This is obviously very important to me.
We are going to strengthen the rights of victims, in particular by enshrining them in law and making them explicit. The law makes it compulsory to provide victims with an appropriate place that allows the necessary discretion. The hearing must be conducted by a trained police officer. Right now, this is not always the case.. There is a commitment to facilitate online filing of complaints for gender-based violence. This is still complicated for now, especially for cyber harassment and online violence, but we want to make it easier. The victim will also be able to choose the gender of the police officer who will interview him or her and will be entitled to a free translation of the documents into the language he or she speaks if he or she does not speak one of the three Belgian national languages (French, Dutch, German).
Risk assessment will be systematized through the generalization of a r tool. When a victim files a complaint, the police officer in charge of the case will assess the level of danger to which the victim is exposed on the basis of a grid and, depending on the result, will provide him or her with appropriate protection measures at each stage of the investigation: ban on contact, ban on location, etc. We are also in the process of deploying a emergency alarm for restraining orders in Belgium,. There is also a commitment to train many professionals in contact with victims of attempted feminicide, includind magistrates and police officers.
What will this training look like? Will it be mandatory in their curriculum? How will it be implemented in practice?
Training will obviously be mandatory in the curriculum. It will start, for the professionals in activity, with a training on the new law, and on gender violence. For example, in relation to the risk assessment tool, it is essential that they are able to spot the signs of danger in situations where there is a risk of femicide.
If, for example, the victim says that her partner has squeezed her throat, a trained police officer will write that there is a strangulation. This will set off an alarm because strangulation is an acute risk signal for femicide. The same goes for the magistrate who will be trained and will read this signal as a risk.
At the level of magistrates, how does the training take place?
Since the beginning of the legislature, we have already worked with the judicial training institute on gender violence. All magistrates have already received training on this subject. They will also receive training on the new law, which will be part of their curriculum, and which will be compulsory..
What measures will be implemented to take into account the co-victims of gender violence such as children in a context of domestic violence?
They are also taken into account, and it is also thanks to the Istanbul Convention that we have been able to do this. In the law, the child will be recognized as a victim in his or her own right: “the child, who may have been exposed without being a direct victim, but who knows the direct victim, is recognized as a victim” (Article 7 of the Stop Femicide law). At the same time, progress has been made in the penal code by also reinforcing children’s status as victims.
In France, 80% of rape complaints are filed without follow-up. Apart from the training of police officers and magistrates, are there any other solutions that you have thought of?
At the moment, we have little insight into the number of cases closed without follow-up, and we do not know the extent of the problem. That is why, in the annual report, one of the figures used will be the number of dismissals. It will also be interesting to study this figure geographically, because it is also a question of people and judicial districts.
There can be different levels of dismissal. The perpetrator may not be found, and so the file exists, but we cannot move it forward because we lack evidence. But this does not mean that the file is thrown away. A file can be reopened, if, for example, another victim files a complaint 2 or 5 years later, with elements that overlap and make it possible to link the 2 files. A dismissal is not a definitive abandonment of the case.
There are also cases where the case has been dropped for reasons of opportunity. The public prosecutor’s office has defined its priorities, considers that it does not have the time and therefore does not pursue the case because it chooses other battles. The higher the priority given to the issue of violence, the more we fight against this phenomenon. When we have the figures, it will be much easier to question the Minister of Justice about this phenomenon.
What is the monitoring methodology you have adopted? Are civil society, organizations, NGOs also solicited?
Monitoring will be carried out on the basis of police statistics. The Institute for the Equality of Women and Men, which is our reference institute for equality, will produce the reports.
With the plan to fight against gender violence, civil society is involved through a platform of associations. It meets every month to discuss the implementation of measures and the associations present are funded to sit on it. This is a new measure that has been put in place. This platform, because of the working time available, can be called upon at different levels and in a concrete way, and in particular for the implementation of certain aspects of the law.
This project has a real vision for women’s rights. What are the next big battles you want to fight?
I am also working on the deployment of centers for victims of sexual violence, where victims can find all the legal, psychological and medical services, 24/7 based on the model of the Maison des femmes in Saint-Denis, France. There are trained police officers on site to take complaints directly. There are 7 times more complaints than in a traditional circuit. Now there are 7 of them, and we are going to open 3 in 2023, so that every victim on Belgian territory will have a center within an hour’s drive. The fight I am leading within the government is to obtain the funding to open four more. This would allow us to have even better coverage of the territory with one center per prosecutor’s office.
On issues of economic violence, I am working to set up a system similar to the one in France, to create a universal and automatic fund to pay child support. This would allow us to get out of the bilateral pressure that can exist between two ex-spouses. At present, when a beneficiary does not receive her claims, she must take steps to appeal to a fund that will advance the amount and recover it from the spouse. This is difficult, creates tension and the children are used as a means of blackmail.