EU reaches first ever agreement to eliminate violence against women

EU reaches first ever agreement to eliminate violence against women
  • Female genital mutilation and forced marriage included as crimes under EU law
  • New rules cover non-consensual release of intimate material and “cyber-flashing”
  • EU remains divided over the definition of rape 


The EU has reached a historic agreement to protect women from different forms of violence. The new law addresses gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, forced marriages and online harassment across all member states. 

Violence against women and girls is one of the most systematic and common human rights violations globally. According to the European Council, one in three women in Europe has experienced physical or sexual violence and 600,000 have undergone female genital mutilation.

“For the first time, the European Union sends a clear message that we take violence against women seriously as an existential threat to our security, said EU lawmaker Frances Fitzgerald. “Today, we take the first step towards making Europe the first continent in the world to eradicate violence against women,” she added.

The new legislation will include improved access to justice as well as protection and prevention services across the European Union. Member states will have to establish helplines and rape crisis centres to support victims, and ensure an easier reporting of crimes of violence against women and domestic violence –  including an option to report online. 

The law will also criminalise online violence, such as cyberstalking, cyber harassment and cyber incitement to hatred or violence. Once adopted, the new law will set common rules on the definition of these offences and related penalties. 

The legislation, however, does not include a definition of rape, as EU member countries and lawmakers remain divided over what legally constitutes rape.  However, countries will aim to raise awareness that non-consensual sex is considered a criminal offence, said the EU Parliament.

Division over definition of rape

EU member countries have different regulations for how rape is defined in their criminal codes. The approach backed by the European Parliament and 13 of the 27 members countries – including Belgium, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Sweden – explicitly defines rape on the basis of lack of consent, without the need for victims to provide evidence of force, threats or coercion. 

Opposing countries, like France, Germany and Hungary, argue that rape does not have the cross-border dimension necessary for it to be considered a crime that comes with common penalties in the Union.

The parliament and the commission strongly disputed that position, insisting that rape could fall within the framework of “sexual exploitation of women”, for which there is already a joint set of penalties.

“I am very disappointed that some member states chose to stand on the wrong side of history and block the inclusion of a consent based rape legislation,” EU lawmaker Evin Incir said. “Yet I maintain hope that by fostering a cultural shift around consent in Europe, we can pave the way for the legislation to be adopted in the future. We will persist fighting for women’s rights until societal change is unmistakable.”

No protections for undocumented women

Louise Bonneau, an advocacy officer at PICUM, an NGO based in Brussels working to ensure human rights for undocumented migrants, highlighted how the agreement fails to protect undocumented women.

Undocumented migrant women are one of the most vulnerable groups in Europe, and are at risk of forced prostitution, labour exploitation and physical abuse. 

“They have no access to justice. As soon as they approach the authorities, their immigration status is going to be more important than meeting their needs as victims,” she told independent media network Euractiv. “Who would report violence and abuse if she risked being locked up and deported instead of receiving support and protection?” 

The agreement still needs to be formally approved by member states and the European Parliament, which is expected to take approximately a year. After that, the deal will be part of the European Union’s legal framework to combat violence against women. The Commission, the EU’s executive arm, will have to report every five years on whether the rules need to be revised, Parliament said.


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