25 November 2021

Ending violence against women is none of your business? Think again.

By Karin Heisecke, Director of MaLisa Foundation, member of the Ariadne Network and international expert on ending violence against women and girls.

It’s that time of the year again. 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, kicks off the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, which marks an intensified action to end this pervasive human rights violation. Year after year, during this time, attention is given to the harrowing statistics, the unacceptably high numbers of women who are murdered, raped, beaten, subjected to sexual harassment, stalking, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, psychological violence, and threats, both on- and offline, at home, at work, and in the public sphere. And we are confronted with the equally harrowing figures of low rates of reporting of these crimes to the police, alongside low conviction rates. 

In stark contrast to these alarming figures is the lack of action – or in some cases even backtracking – by most European governments, as well as by large parts of European philanthropy. This is puzzling given that violence against women undermines all other efforts for gender equality and “women’s empowerment”. Let’s be clear about what the statistic of “one in three women in Europe has experienced physical and/or sexual violence” means: these women are trying to get on with their lives, care for their children, prepare themselves to take on leadership positions, contribute towards solving the pressing issues of our times such as the climate crisis, pandemics, divided societies, whilst recovering from the physical and psychological consequences of the violence that they have suffered. Meanwhile, their perpetrators (who may be their partner, their boss, their colleague, their board member, their grant manager, …) are often not held to account and benefit from impunity. 

Let’s “unpack” this situation. 

Ending violence against women requires action at multiple levels. There is no quick fix to end it. Fortunately, in Europe, there is a good “road map” available to governments. Since 2011, the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention) provides a comprehensive policy and legal framework to effectively prevent and respond to violence against women and domestic violence. Being referred to as the international “gold standard” by the United Nations, it is based on several decades of theory and practice in this field. To date, the Convention has been ratified by 34 Council of Europe member states. A further 10, as well as the European Union, have taken the initial step towards ratification by signing it.

This sounds reassuring: a significant number of governments are committed to preventing and responding to violence against women and domestic violence. However, in practice, there are numerous challenges. 

Firstly, in a number of countries, strong opposition and backlash against the Istanbul Convention have emerged in the past years. Ironically, the country that was first to ratify it, Turkey, has even decided to leave the Convention in July 2021. Equally, in Poland, government members have voiced their intention of leaving the Convention, while actively promoting an “alternative” Convention which focuses on “the rights of the family”. The civil society groups behind this backlash initiative deliberately spread false information about the Convention. Their attacks are part of a bigger populist, anti-democratic agenda, which is pursued at the national and European level by groups that are well networked across the continent and beyond. 

Secondly, even those governments that have ratified, fail to fulfil their obligations. The reports issued by the monitoring body linked to the Convention give ample evidence of this. The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the weaknesses of the chronically underfunded support infrastructure for women who experience violence. It took a pandemic to inspire at least some governments (and some foundations) in Europe to pay more attention to this dire situation and to provide more funding. Whilst foundations have played an important role[1] in filling urgent funding gaps in the short term, in the long term it is clear that the costs of services across Europe cannot and should not be borne by philanthropy, but that this is governments’ responsibility.

In practice, however, governments are failing to take a comprehensive approach, equipped with concrete timelines and budgets, to ending gender-based violence, that goes beyond individual measures and a “damage control” reaction to a crisis. Full implementation of the Istanbul Convention would mean not only ensuring the provision of important services for survivors. It would also mean effective prosecution of perpetrators, a strong focus on prevention, and ensuring that the government’s approach is well coordinated and involves all relevant public and civil society entities. 

Those of us working in philanthropy for social change will be aware that governments are unlikely to shift their focus of attention by themselves. Rather, such political change requires strong and strategic civil society advocacy that shifts public opinion and political action. 

To end violence against women in Europe, philanthropy could play a key leveraging role by supporting the advocacy work of movements for the ratification and implementation of the Istanbul Convention by their governments. Activists and organisations in this field should not be relegated to “picking up the pieces” by providing services for survivors whilst often struggling for organisational survival themselves, on short term project grants. They should be involved in shaping public discourse and political decision-making processes to lift the issue to the political priority that it deserves.”

This is an urgent matter all across Europe where massive gaps remain in the implementation of the Istanbul Convention and philanthropic support for advocacy in this field is dismal. Furthermore, though the European Commission is planning to propose an EU Directive on violence against women, the delay of its first proposal indicates a need for sustained advocacy efforts to maximise its chances of success.

You might think that gender-based violence is not relevant to your foundation’s work because it’s not explicitly spelt out in your mission. Think again. If your work is relevant to people, the negative impact of gender-based violence will play into your work. Ignoring it will undermine the impact of all your efforts. This is not a “women’s issue”, it’s about ensuring a stable democracy and a just society for all.

Philanthropy infrastructure could play an important role in convening philanthropic organisations for them to share experiences, facilitate mutual learning and jointly strategise how to increase impact or even how to get started. So, what’s it going to be? We continue business as usual, meet again next year and count the numbers of survivors, or rather we start figuring out how we can contribute meaningfully to ending violence against women?”

Karin Heisecke

Karin Heisecke is an international expert on ending violence against women and girls. She has worked across Europe, amongst others with the United Nations, international NGOs and the V-Day movement. Since 2010, she is based in Berlin and acts as a strategic advisor for international and national organisations and foundations and as a speaker, researcher and lecturer. She is a member of the Ariadne Network, co-author of the Ariadne report “Ending Violence Against Women in Europe: An Exploration of Philanthropic Giving” and was a key contributor to the Ariadne report “Preventing and responding to sexual harassment: Funders’ practices and challenges”. Since 2016, she is the Director of MaLisa Foundation.

About MaLisa Foundation

MaLisa Foundation’s vision is a world free from gender-based discrimination and violence. Its work focuses on more balanced gender representation and on addressing harmful gender stereotypes in media and culture. Most recently, MaLisa Foundation initiated the first-ever representative analysis of the representation of gender-based violence in German television. The results show that there is “room for improvement” if broadcasters aim at addressing the topic responsibly and constructively. 

[1] Examples are the Covid-19 urgent response fund for domestic violence service providers from the WAVE Network in Central and Eastern Europe, which was funded by OAK Foundation and administered by the German women’s fund filia (information on the programme is available in German), and the Alliance for gender equality in Europe’s  “2021 fund for covid solidarity” – open call for proposals.