Article published the PES Women & ECOSY Feminist Network Newsletter of 25th November 2010.

Nowadays, in Belgium –and in other countries- it has become bon ton to speak about the end stage of feminism and of a new sense of femininity. One then often refers to the self-confident women in series like Sex and the City who serve as new role models for millions of women. When I think about it, it gives me the shivers. It’s not that I don’t like shopping or hanging out with friends. It’s more like: yes, we have a good legislation that protects us, and yes, we can work, but we still earn about 23% less than men for the same work. The Belgian Carries also spend more free time to housekeeping activities than the men they live with do. Moreover the most shocking fact of all remains the persistence of violence against women. According to recent figures from Amnesty International, 1 in 5 women in Belgium is confronted with violence in her own household, whereas a recent study by the Belgian Institute for the Equality of Women and Men revealed that 15% of Belgian women were a victim of spousal abuse last year. This happens in every socio-economic context, regardless of social status, age, education, job, origin or religion. So even our well-educated, well-paid and/or well-married Belgian sisters run the risk of abuse. This doesn’t really feel like the end stage of emancipation to me. It just shows how much work remains to be done to achieve real equality between men and women. We really need to keep fighting age-old prejudices and mostly the uncomfortable silence surrounding violence against women. I think everyone, at least once in his life, has encountered a woman “that fell from the stairs” (the Flemish popular expression for a woman beaten by her partner), but to often we didn’t do anything.

Fortunately, there are still Belgian politicians and organizations who know where and how to fight this battle. In what follows, I will briefly present the recent initiatives of the Belgian socialist MEP Marc Tarabella to create a European Year of Combating Violence against Women and the campaign ‘Put domestic violence offside’ of the socialist women’s movements zij-kant and VIVA-SVV.

For a European Year of Combating Violence against Women

In February 2010 the Belgian socialist MEP Marc Tarabella presented his report on the equality between men and women in the European Union to his colleagues in Parliament. It was approved with a comfortable majority of 381 to 253. This is quite extraordinary since the last time MEP’s expressed progressive views on women’s rights already dates from 2002, with the approval of the report of another Belgian socialist, Anne Van Lancker.

In his report Marc Tarabella proposes to create a European Year of Combating Violence against Women in the five years to come. This way the European institutions can attract more attention to problems like domestic violence and the traffic in women. As the aforementioned figures illustrate, more efforts are needed to fight violence against women and to realize real equality. Marc Tarabella also invites the European Commission to work out a proposal for a directive on the prevention and fight against all forms of violence towards women and especially against the traffic in women.

Subsequently, in April of this year, the Belgian MEP together with MEP’s Barbara Matera, Marije Cornelissen, Ilda Figueiredo and Antonyia Parvanova formally asked the European Commission for the establishment of this European Year of Combating Violence against Women. In September, they launched a petition to support their demands towards the European Commission. You can sign it at www.violenceagainstwomen.eu.

Although the project would certainly raise awareness in the Union about the problem, it seems that the continued efforts of MEP’s will be needed to give a clear European signal towards the public. This is clearly demonstrated by the present European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion. It shows that such a European Year provides an excellent platform for initiatives coming from local NGO’s and some government departments. A real European strategy coming from the European institutions themselves is often missing, while this is most needed. One just has to think about the removal of the goals concerning poverty from the EU2020 Strategy, and this in the year that poverty reduction should be a central issue for the institutions.

Put domestic violence offside

At the regional level, the socialist women’s movements zij-kant and VIVA-SVV look at the broader picture concerning violence against women. They are of the opinion that violence against women is not only an issue of gender equality, but also a problem that affects the environment of the women concerned. So in their recent campaign, “Put Domestic Violence Offside” (Gezinsgeweld buitenspel) that runs from 13 October till 25 November, they focus on the children who witness spousal abuse. They observe that about 40% of the children who witness spousal abuse experience serious problems themselves. The negative experiences harm their personal development, cause health- and behavioural problems and give them a low self image.

Thus the recent campaign of zij-kant and VIVA-SVV tries to make adults realize that domestic violence also harms the children involved. It’s not only a question of women’s rights, it’s a problem that affects the whole of society. If you want to create a tolerant and non-violent society, you have to keep searching for solutions to tackle the issue. You have to keep raising awareness among public and confidants and demand more support for social workers.

The campaign also has a preventive side. It tries to give people tips on how to deal in a constructive manner with differences of opinion. The “Antigeweldheld” (the Anti-Violence Hero, the mascot of the campaign), for example, distributes leaflets and gadgets with information for families on how to handle discussions. He also hands out red cards to ask for a time-out when discussions are escalating. Furthermore, the leaflets contain useful information for people who already became victim of domestic violence. They refer among other things to www.horenzienenpraten.be (‘hear, see and talk’), a very good website about all aspects of domestic violence, published by zij-kant and VIVA-SVV.

Finally, zij-kant and VIVA-SVV want to see some policy changes. They ask for an evaluation of the recent Belgian law on divorce that stimulates co-parentage, even in possibly violent situations. Moreover, they demand the establishment of a family court that will permit to solve contradictions between criminal and civil sentences. Anyhow they expect a clear signal from the legislature and the judiciary that domestic violence will not be tolerated and that victims have to be heard and protected. Further, zij-kant and VIVA-SVV want to launch a debate about the possibility for doctors to inform an attorney general about cases of severe domestic violence when the victim doesn’t want to or can’t take initiatives. They feel that laws on privacy and professional secrecy can’t be an impediment to adequate help, since every child deserves a warm home.

Initiatives like these have already brought about significant changes in the public opinion and in the legislature, but the statistics show we still have a lot of work to do. Feminism certainly is not passé. 1 in 5 Belgian women and 1 in 4 European women being a victim of domestic violence simply remains intolerable.

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