Opinion piece by Sophie Pouget on Euronews: “What do the European elections mean for gender equality?”

11 June 2024

On the occasion of the European elections, Sophie Pouget, a member of the steering committee of the Alliance for Gender Equality in Europe and General Delegate of the RAJA-Danièle Marcovici Foundation, highlighted in an opinion piece published on Euronews the implications of the vote for rights and freedoms.



Also on the European ballot? Equality.

If alone in the woods, would you rather encounter a bear or a man?

This recent TikTok trend has revived an important debate about women’s safety, as almost all women on the platform, as well as X and Instagram, chose the giant wild animal.

Their responses are unsurprising. In every corner of Europe, offline and online, women face abuse. Some are stalked, some harassed, some assaulted. The problem is so entrenched and widespread across the EU that one in three women have suffered some form of sexual or physical violence.

Violence against women is not merely the work of ‘a few bad apples’ — it is an issue that demands systemic solutions.

While this viral discourse misses how most violence is perpetrated by intimate partners, it is a fact that, in the shadows of pandemic lockdowns, domestic violence cases has been rising sharply. In France, for example, more than 100 women are killed by their current or former partner every year, while a rape or attempted rape takes place every 2.5 minutes.

In even greater danger are LBTIQ women, women with disabilities, and migrant women. A recent study found that migrant women in France are 9 times more exposed to sexual violence and 18 times more likely to be victims of rape.

There’s good news: not only has the EU ratified the Istanbul Convention, the most comprehensive international instrument on the protection of women, it also recently adopted landmark legislation to combat violence against women, including a ban on female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and cyber violence.

Women’s safety, an unfinished business

But two years of back-and-forth in Brussels negotiation rooms revealed a shocking lack of political will to end all forms of gender-based violence.

President of France, Emmanuel Macron and German justice minister, Marco Buschmann, scandalously allied with the illiberal prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, to exclude from the law a definition of rape based on lack of freely given consent.

Rape is one of the most horrific but frequent forms of violence. It is estimated that 5 percent of all women in the EU have been raped. Yet most women and girls don’t report for fear of not being believed and due to a lack of trust in the justice system, among other reasons.

“If I got attacked by the bear then at least everyone would believe me”, one social media user said.

Introducing a consent-based definition of rape in the EU would have benefited survivors in more than 15 countries, including France.

Before French courts, the burden of proof is on the victim to prove that it was committed under threat, duress, surprise or violence. Establishing one of these four elements is much harder than it sounds, and, too often, consent is assumed by default.

Similarly, in Italy, Poland, Hungary and 7 other member states, the law requires the use of force or threats.

This an outdated and dangerous approach. Without an informed and freely given ‘yes’, it is rape.

Historically, the presence of feminist movements has been shown to be the most important factor in a country’s willingness to address gender-based violence. Feminist organisations need and deserve more support, so they can push for ambitious legislation, offer support to survivors, and raise public awareness.

However, when it came to criminalising rape across the EU, women’s demands fell on deaf ears, with the French justice saying the legal change would end up “contractualising sexual relations” by requiring explicit consent. There’s more work ahead to challenge such harmful myths.

Gender equality on the ballot

Over the past five years, debates in the European Parliament have demonstrated that commitment from policymakers is anything but guaranteed. Oxfam France’s research shows a polarised landscape: while left-wing, green, and socialist parties have advanced measures ranging from pay transparency to LGBTQI+ rights, far-right groups have consistently opposed these initiatives.

And despite some advances in gender equality across Europe, national laws concerning rape, abortion, contraception, sex education, and LGBTQ rights are as varied as chalk and cheese. Why should our rights, freedoms, and safety depend on where we live? They shouldn’t, says feminist association Choisir la cause des femmes.

After touring Europe to meet experts and activists, Choisir is now pioneering ‘the most favoured European clause’: a proposal to harmonise standards with best-in-class laws, such as Spain’s progressive ‘only yes means yes’ rape law.

Their goal is to urge electoral candidates to commit to these highest standards, so that all Europeans can benefit from the most robust protections.

This initiative is especially urgent as political tides shift towards conservatism in countries like Italy, Slovakia, and Sweden, where rights are at risk of being rolled back amidst virulent anti-feminism rhetoric and as millions of euros pour into anti-gender groups.

The upcoming European elections will be more important than most. While defence, climate, and competition are poised to dominate discussions, the critical issue of gender equality cannot be overlooked.

Progress in this area is not only stalling but hard-won rights and protections are precariously fragile.

The outcome of this election will directly influence whose rights are protected, which freedoms are upheld, and how we weed out gender-based violence going forward.

That’s why we need more, not less, elected officials who will listen to grassroots groups like Choisir, who are not only aware of community needs but also passionate about solutions. Every vote cast has the power to determine whether all women will feel safer at home or alone in the woods.


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