Europe’s women suffer ‘violence epidemic’

Bitter taste: This American poster campaign warns that cruel mind games are a form of abuse.

A shocking survey shows that a third of all European women have experienced some form of domestic violence. Mental abuse was included in the report. But is it as serious as physical attacks?

Barely a month seems to go by without a set of figures revealing widespread domestic violence. It affects everyone: men and women of all ages, and even the rich and famous, as last year’s shocking photos of celebrity chef Nigella Lawson demonstrated.

Now new statistics, published yesterday, confirm that violence against women is ‘an extensive human rights abuse’ across Europe.

According to a survey carried out by the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights, a third of all women in EU countries — approximately 62 million, have experienced some form of physical or sexual abuse since the age of 15. The survey interviewed 42,000 women across 28 member states, making it the largest survey of its kind.

The report also reveals that more than four in ten women have experienced psychological violence, such as being humiliated, being locked indoors, being threatened, being prevented from seeing family and friends, or having their behaviour and clothing controlled by a partner.

Governments are now realising that domestic violence does not only come in the form of a kick or punch: fear of an abuser can be subtle. Coercive control was last year included in the UK definition of domestic violence, and the change was publicised in a campaign starring ‘Hollyoaks’ actors Nikki Sanderson and Jeremy Sheffield.

But some women’s groups this week have argued that simply broadening the definition of domestic violence is not enough; they want psychological abuse to be recognised as a crime. Steps are underway to make this a reality: ministers want to make domestic abuse a specific offence and require the courts to ensure that sentences reflect whether the abuse, either physical or psychological, is part of a pattern of behaviour.

Sticks and stones

Some argue that including psychological violence within the umbrella definition of domestic violence does a disservice to those who suffer black eyes and broken bones. It would be ludicrous if the police intervened every time a couple has a heated row or one treats the other badly. Relationships have problems, and counsellors, psychologists and divorce lawyers are far better suited to deal with them than politicians or the police. Besides, it would be near impossible for prosecutors to prove that psychological abuse was even happening.

Others warn that the situation is far too serious to ignore. This week an online survey of 258 domestic violence victims found that 88% felt the legal system did not take psychological harm into account, despite 94% of victims saying that mental cruelty was sometimes worse than physical harm. Moreover, psychological abuse is often the prelude to physical abuse — the two cannot easily be separated.

You Decide

  1. Is psychological abuse as bad as physical abuse?
  2. Should the government and the law intervene in intimate relationships? Can they do so effectively and fairly?


  1. Find out how respectful you are in your relationships, using the government’s This is Abuse webpage, in Expert Links.
  2. Look at our link relating to the Oscar Pistorius case. Write a letter to the bookmakers involved explaining what you think of their decision to take bets on this case. Explain what action you think they should take now and why.

Some People Say...

“Private relationships are nobody’s business but the people involved in them.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Would I know if I was being psychologically abused?
Unlike physical abuse, sometimes victims of mental abuse don’t realise it is happening. It can be all too easy to make excuses for the bad behaviour of loved ones. Psychological abuse comes in all shapes and sizes, but feelings of degradation, humiliation, worthlessness, or having your everyday movements controlled by someone, such as your phone being checked, or comments about what you’re wearing, are all symptoms of abuse.
What can I do if I, or someone I know, is being affected?
There are a number of charities and organisations to speak to if you’re worried — go to the government’s This is Abuse page in Expert Links, for a full list. There are also plenty of resources to help you understand what is abuse and what the law says.

Word Watch

Nigella Lawson
Pictures emerged last summer of Lawson’s then husband, advertising tycoon Charles Saatchi, with his hands around her neck. The images triggered an acrimonious divorce — and a nationwide debate about domestic violence.
Surprisingly, Denmark, Finland and Sweden, countries often commended for their gender equality, revealed the highest numbers of women who have suffered physical or sexual violence. The UK has the joint fifth highest incidence of physical and sexual violence 44%, while women in Poland report the lowest – 19%.
The survey was organised by Paladin, the National Stalking Advocacy Service, and two domestic violence charities, Women’s Aid and the Sara Charlton Foundation. They want the law changed to make ‘coercive control’ a criminal offence.

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