Just in time for International Women's Day, we are hearing alarming news about violence against women. But this time the message does not come from those areas of the world that suffer under the dictates of terrorizing, patriarchal regimes -- but from the most enlightened regions of Europe, beacons of applied gender inclusion.
The slogan of the early women's movement -- "Sisterhood is global" -- is taking on a new dimension in light of the data revealed by the newest study on violence against women in Europe. Violent relationships apparently do not stop outside the borders. A representative poll run by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) in all 28 Member States of the EU, which included 42,000 women between the ages of 18 and 74, is clear: 33 percent of all women over the age of 15 have been victims of physical and/or sexual violence. This is over 37 million women -- a number greater than the population of Italy, to give a geographical comparison. Moreover, victims often intimately know the perpetrators: 43 percent of the abused women were subject to violence by their husbands or former partners.
When we follow the news about violence that women suffer in their own homes in India, Saudi Arabia, or Afghanistan there is a (not entirely politically correct) feeling of 'how good that we women live in the West, where we are protected by the rule of law rather than Sharia, equal to men in social standing, albeit not always treated and paid equally.'
So, are the representatives of the West moral pioneers? This image has been fundamentally damaged. "West is best" -- at least for women? This culturally imperialist slogan has now rendered itself obsolete.
When we look at the country rankings, a further surprise awaits. The mecca of western womankind, Scandinavia, has been rocked by a powerful quake. The tectonic shifts that moved gender equality forward there seem all of sudden to be accompanied by worrisome undertones: in an over all country ranking Denmark, Finland, and Sweden harbor the highest proportion of violence against women, followed by the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain. In these countries, where women can have (almost) everything, at least a choice of options to shape their own lives; 46 to 52 percent suffer massive violence at the hands of men.
These relations do not accord with any sense of justice -- regardless, and now it has been documented. But at least here, there are consequences and no excuses in the name of tradition and cultural practice. Or are there? Concerning consequences, the majority of the attacks go unpunished. Two-thirds of women who suffered violence at the hands of their partners kept their experiences to themselves, according to the study. Whilst we are admittedly affected, this is only half of the moral reckoning -- the crimes must also be brought to light and accounted for. It is not only a matter of courage but also responsibility -- a moral obligation.
Over the last decade we have watched and supported the brave victims speak up from the farthest corners of the earth: from the Taliban-infested Swat Valley to rural India. This is and was absolutely necessary, because the anonymity of victims conceals the crime committed against them. Meanwhile in this Scandinavian safe haven for women, where we assumed that the highest level of emancipation and progress was exercised and experienced, women are abused to an horrific extent. This is happening in our own back yard? Why didn't it come out earlier?
We didn't find out because women victims of violence from around the world have one thing in common: a sense of shame and guilt, which anonymity perpetuates. These ambivalent feelings form a personal barrier, and it takes quite some determination to break through.
The violence will only end when every victim shows her face and every perpetrator is named. And when every victim has a voice, and this voice names the perpetrator.
And who is responsible? First of all men, of course. But also women who know about the crimes, who fall in the fateful category of bystanders that do not take action. The victims however; as a result of the trauma they suffer, they fall into a special category. They require support on an individual level, and at the highest political levels -- because the violence and its denial is an unacceptable stain on our society.
Though the international community of women, represented by high-ranking bureaucrats, condemns violence at conferences and subsequent declarations in Western power hubs, this has not had much more than a public relations and appeasement effect so far.
In the past, the women's movement reared-up to demand justice, power-sharing, and above all reflection and discussion of the power structures. Determined to achieve success, our sisters in the USA brought the movement to the next level with the promise that women can have IT ALL! Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook, the face of the new Wonder Woman, stands at the forefront of this movement -- she really has achieved everything. Harvard, McKinsey, CEO of a multinational firm, with a house husband and small children to complete the perfect package. But even behind the glamorous facade of this new successful female corps hides a dirty secret: according to the EU study, 75 percent of women in leading management positions have experienced sexual harassment. The victims have not yet dared to show their faces, however, and the perpetrators still have carte blanche.
How is this possible, even for these educated, confident, and independent-thinking women? Maybe they're scared that in case of doubt, it could be all or nothing. Standing up for yourself is certainly risky, with an unclear ending, often resulting in loss: the loss of love, the loss of employment, the loss of familiar security. The violent relationships in the midst of our daily lives can no longer be defined as the derailment of individuals -- they are a structural problem. Of course there is always so much at stake. So what can we do? We need a standard and a strategy!
Edit Schlaffer is a social scientist and the founder of Women without Borders and Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE), the world's first female counterterrorism platform. www.women-without-borders.org