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Commission wants EU governments to get tougher on violence against women

The European Commission will present a proposal pushing EU countries to implement tougher rules to combat violence against women — the first proposal of its kind for the EU executive, to be unveiled Tuesday on International Women’s Day.

A draft proposal, seen by POLITICO, would have all member countries classify any nonconsensual sex as rape under criminal law, and also criminalize female genital mutilation, cyberstalking and harassment as well as the nonconsensual sharing of intimate images, known as revenge porn. 

“Given the way in which violence against women and domestic violence have evolved in the past decades, these types of crimes are unlikely to significantly decrease without additional EU action,” the draft states.

The proposal comes after the EU has struggled for years to get all members fully on board with the 2011 Istanbul Convention — a 25-page international treaty meant to reduce violence against women across Europe. While 45 countries have signed on to the legally binding text, a handful of EU countries including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia and Slovakia have refused to translate its provisions into law, citing a semantic dispute over how exactly to define “gender.” Poland’s right-wing government has also said it was planning on leaving the convention. 

This resistance has stopped the EU as a whole from applying global minimum standards on rape, female genital mutilation and forced marriage, and from moving forward with more ambitious legislation for a region that regularly touts the convention’s values. 

“We must respond firmly to the increase in violence witnessed over the past years,” said Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli in a statement. “This proposal is a good step towards all-encompassing legislation on violence against women across the EU.”

Five years after the #MeToo movement helped raise awareness about the widespread prevalence of sexual violence against women, the Commission bill states that “many Member States still require the use of force, threats or coercion” for an act to be considered and punished as rape under criminal law.

Minimum EU-wide rules will ensure fairer and more efficient mechanisms for victims to report crimes and receive support. The Commission also wants more training for law enforcement and judicial authorities.

“Without prejudice to the rights of defence, questions, enquiries and evidence concerning past sexual conduct of the victim should not be permitted in criminal investigations and court proceedings,” the draft states.

Growing online violence

The legislation will also aim to tackle more modern and growing problems like the online surveillance of women by abusive partners and intimidation on social media, with many victims saying they feel helpless to prevent or report such incidents. 

“Online violence and cyberbullying is on the rise, targeting in particular women in public life, such as journalists and politicians. This is not acceptable in modern Europe. And this is why we are acting,” said European Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová in a statement. 

The Commission wants to criminalize cyberstalking, which is defined as persistent intimidation and threats or continuous surveillance to track someone’s activities, including through spying on social media and messaging platforms, hacking their devices or installing geolocalization apps. 

Organized group attacks against an individual on social media would be off-limits, too. 

“​​Such broad attacks, including coordinated online mob attacks, may morph into offline assault or cause significant psychological injury and in extreme cases lead to suicide of the victim,” the text states.

The nonconsensual sharing of images, videos and audio clips, as well as so-called deepfake imagery — when someone’s likeness has been edited or manipulated to appear authentic — of someone engaging in an intimate act could also lead to criminal charges under the plan.

National authorities would be empowered to order social media, porn websites, cloud services or other platforms to take down such material. The EU’s proposed content moderation bill, known as the Digital Services Act, would similarly allow national authorities to take such actions.

The text says that while such offenses “disproportionately affect women,” the new measures will be able to protect all victims.

Member countries and the Parliament will still have to negotiate on and approve of the Commission’s proposed legislation before any measures must be transposed into domestic law.

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