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Monumental week for women’s rights!

[13 July 2023, Strasbourg] This week is a historic week for women’s rights and the women’s movement: the European Parliament has adopted a strong resolution for an EU Directive on combating violence against women and domestic violence. The EP resolution takes on many of the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) proposals and significantly strengthens the text issued by the European Commission last year. When adopted, the Directive will reinforce protection, prevention and support mechanisms for victims and access to justice and compensation to survivors all across the EU.

It is for 30 years that theEuropean Women’s Lobby, the largest organisation of women’s associations in Europe, has been demanding a Directive and a comprehensive and coherent EU legal framework to end all forms of male violence against women and girls. Today we are a step closer to achieving this milestone and we acknowledge the collective effort made by many dedicated women over the years, including the collective push ahead of us to make this strong EP proposal for a Directive a reality.

However, the proposal for a Directive adopted by the Council is very far away from both the proposal just agreed by the European Parliament but also the European Commission’s initial text. The Council has disgracefully agreed to water down the provisions of the Directive dramatically, losing its structural analysis and gender sensitive approach. Concretely, Member States agreed by qualified majority on deleting the article criminalising rape: one of the most brutal forms of violence against women, at the very core of the violation of women’s fundamental rights.

Thanks to the determination of the two rapporteurs MEP Frances Fitzgerald (EPP, Ireland) and MEP Evin Incir (S&D, Sweden), the European Parliament has adopted a definition of rape and sexual violence that meets the highest standards of the Istanbul Convention,recently ratified by the EU. Sex without freely given consent is considered rape/sexual violence and, in their proposal, surrounding circumstances preventing the capacity to form a free will are well defined, including fear, intimidation and vulnerability. In the EU, only a small number of women feel safe to report and ask for help and therefore a great majority of sex crimes perpetrated by men against women remain undisclosed. Furthermore, victims of rape do not have the same level of protection across Europe as definitions of the crime vary widely.

There are still 13 Member States in the EU, (Bulgaria, Czechia, Estonia, Finland, France, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia) that do not yet have definitions based on the notion of freely given consent but still retain forced-based definitions that do not offer adequate protection to victims, including one member state where marital rape is not considered (Lithuania). In these countries, women who do dare to report often face obstacles, judgement and humiliation, having to fight not only against injustice but also gender stereotypes and moral views about women’s sexuality. Victims are often blamed for not fighting off the perpetrator or trying to run away. However, according to the latest neuroscience research, involuntary paralysis and submission are the most common body reactions. Furthermore, a large majority of rape cases are committed by men known to the victim and therefore other strategies rather than force and violence are used by the perpetrators. The proposal of the European Parliament recognises that sexual violence and rape occurs when the act is performed without the woman’s consent given voluntarily or where the woman is unable to form a free will (due to fear, intimidation, unconsciousness, intoxication, sleep, illness, bodily injury or disability or in an otherwise particularly vulnerable situation).

Jana (fictitious name) from the Czech Republic was raped by a colleague at a teambuilding retreat. She woke up from sleep realising she was being raped and paralysed in fear. When she reported what happened to her, the police officers asked her why she didn’t have any scratches and didn’t resist. The case was dropped and it was the end of the criminal process for him; and the start of a very hard recovery process for her, as a survivor of sexual violence.

Marta in Spain was victim of chemical submission: her partner raped her in six occassions in seven years, on her own bed by administering drugs that left her practically unconscious. When she reported, she didn’t receive adequate specialised support nor access to justice as her case was dismissed due to lack of evidence. A similar situation happened to Lidia, who was drugged with cocaine against her will and raped by probably three strangers while being unconscious. One of them was identified with the DNA tests but never convicted. The case was dismissed before even going to court. Despite having to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, both Marta and Lidia have become outspoken activists to ensure that laws offer adequate protection and access to justice in cases where women are unable to form a free will. You can read their testimonies and their call for an adequate Directive and their testimonies here.

Women across the EU, like Jana, Lidia and Marta, will largely benefit from the reinforced definition of sexual violence and consent as proposed by the European Parliament, as it will ensure that victims of chemical submission and victims who remain passive in fear are also equally protected.
While several EU Member States have recently adopted legislations to try to move away from forced-based definitions of rape; these definitions aren’t always adequate as they continue to place the burden on the victim rather than the perpetrator. This is the case for countries that have recently adopted a “No means no” approach (like Germany, Austria or Cyprus), where victims are still required to prove that they fought back; and Member States where there are also risks of significant shortfalls in their newly adopted legislations (including Denmark, Belgium, Malta, Luxembourg).

Overall, all EU Member States will benefit from the new reinforced definition of rape and consent included proposed by the European Parliament if it is included in the Directive and -even more- it will change a disgraceful situation that is most common trend across the EU: the lack of specialist rape crisis centers for victims of sexual violence.

There is no time to loose: more than 81,500 people have signed our joint petition with WeMove Europe titled “Make Europe a safe space for women and girls” calling for the adoption of a strong EU law that criminalises all forms of sexual exploitation of women, including sexual violence and abuse over women’s sexuality, and all forms of online violence against women and girls. This week, ahead of the first kick off trialogue meeting, the EWL has delivered the signatures to Commissioner for Equality, Ms Helena Dalli; the two EP rapporteurs; and we have requested to do so to the Minister of Justice of Spain, in representation of the Spanish Presidency.

EWL WeMove Delivery Commissioner Rapporteurs

The EWL urges the EU Institutions (and specially the Spanish Presidency) to ensure total dedication to this file and strong leadership to get a new agreement that recognises the urgency to adopt a common approach to rape that protects all the victims. Four Member states (Belgium, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg) have already made a Declaration regretting the lack of political ambition for the criminalisation of rape, reminding that there not only solid legal basis in the EU treaties but also similar pieces of legislation already adopted at EU level. The rest of the Member States should feel absolutely ashamed to have agreed to backtrack on this Directive which requires a qualified majority to be adopted. They must listen to the loud voices of citizens, survivors, women’s organisations and the European Parliament and immediately reconsider their outrageous position.

Laws help to change societal attitudes. The EU needs to agree on a strong Directive that sets the vision about the society that we want to see: a society where all forms of sexual violence are eradicated and every single woman’s sexual and body integrity is adequately respected; where women are not considered sexualised objects. We need to provide a legal framework across the EU that fosters the new generations to enjoy safe, uncoerced, egalitarian and mutually pleasurable sex and relationships.

What does the European Parliament resolution entail:

  • The position of the European Parliament builds on and reinforces in numerous ways the proposal made originally by the European Commission. In alignment with many of EWL suggestions, the EP text:
  • Reinforces the rights of victims to protection and support and the measures for prevention and early intervention.
  • Provides common definitions for specific forms of sexual exploitation of women, particularly rape, but also sexual violence, sexual harassment in the world of work, female and intersex genital mutilation, forced sterilisation and forced marriage.
  • Strengthens the definition of freely given consent by adding the same wording as in the Istanbul Convention and specifying the state of fear and intimidation as limiting factors to the capacity of women to form a free will, and refers as well to otherwise particularly vulnerable situations. It specifically refers to marital rape and rape in other partnership status.
  • Strengthens key aspects of the forms of cyberviolence against women and girls: . The definition of “intimate material” is expanded to include nude images or videos e. Doxxing or the revealing of personal data is included in the definition of cyberstalking and creepshots or the Sending unsolicited material depicting genitals is included in the definition of cyber harassment.
  • Reinforces the penalties and the aggravating factors already included in the Commission proposal, including acts of humiliation and inhuman and degrading acts, the intention of bringing profit or gain or restore the so-called “honour”, and the intention to punish the victims; or the fact that the offence was committed against a public representative, a journalist or a human rights defender.
  • Sets key obligations and standards to provide victims with specialist support mechanisms to protect survivors and ensure their access to justice and reparation. It highlights the role of women’s organisations and women’s specialist services.
  • Reinforces the obligations of Member States when it comes to reporting and investigation by asking to ensure provision of accessible legal aid to victims that is free of charge; and that evidence is secured from the earliest possible and kept whether or not the investigation continues.Filling a complaint wouldn’t be a prerequisite for victims to be referred to specialised attention.
  • It reinforces the obligations to carry on specialised individual risk assessment to identify protection needs to include the existence of coercive control, psychological harm and the risk of suicide; key proven risks factors are included like recent divorce or separation; pregnancy, victim’s dependence and disability; and the possible risk to us kids to exercise control over victims. It highlights arrest and detention as protective measures and reinforces the provisions of emergency barring, restraining and protection orders including the use of electronic monitoring to ensure the enforcement of such orders.
  • It reinforces the obligations to issue specialised guidelines for enforcement and judicial authorities in criminal but also in civil proceedings such as custody proceedings.
  • It reinforces the due diligence of states to compensate a victim when the offenders do not pay the compensation.
  • It reinforces the provisions on support to victims by specifying an obligation to provide specialist and intersectional support services including women’s specialist services, support centres, women’s shelters, and exit services.
  • It reinforces the provisions on specialist support for victims of sexual violence, including access SRHR services, emergency contraception, screening for STI and access to safe and legal abortion. It also reinforces the need of specialist support services for victims female and intersex mutilation, forced sterilisation, sexual harassment in the world of work and victims of cyberviolence.
  • It adds new provisions on flexible work arrangements and paid leave for victims as per the recommendations from ILO Recommendations.
  • Strengthens the provisions on prevention and early intervention. it is very positive to see the request of mandatory national action plans to be developed in consultation with specialist support services and the obligation to create sustainable structures for consultation and partnership with relevant CSOs.
  • Mechanisms for data collection, including the obligation to carry out periodic surveys, and prevention are also extended when compared to the initial Commission proposal
  • Acknowledges women in prostitution and calls for exit services. See here our article] on the recent FEMM Committee vote in favour of the initiative report on the regulation of prostitution in the EU, its cross-border implications and impact on gender equality and women’s rights.
  • Takes on board our request to have an EU coordinator on ending violence against women that has a strong political vision and mandate to ensure a coherent and gender sensitive approach to the implementation of the Directive and the Istanbul Convention at EU level.

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The European Women’s Lobby is the largest umbrella organisation of women’s associations in Europe. Founded in 1990, the EWL works to promote women’s rights and equality between women and men and represents more than 2000 organisations across Europe.

We remain at your disposal for any further information you might need. Feel welcome to contact:

Mirta Baselovic, Communications and Media Coordinator

Laura Kaun, Policy and Campaigns Director

Irene Rosales, Policy and Campaigns Officer

Alexia Fafara, Policy and Campaigns Officer

Latest video

EWL event "Progress towards a Europe free from all forms of male violence" to mark the 10th aniversary of the Istanbul Convention, 12 May 2021.

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