A slap in the face for all women of Europe


In a blow to women across Europe, a crucial law to combat sexualized and digital violence was thwarted by Germany and France. With rape still not uniformly defined, and digital abuses narrowly defined, the fight for women's safety demands a stronger, unified front. Equal rights demand equal security.

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The approved Directive on combating violence against women and domestic violence could have been a very ambitious law to protect women from sexualised and digital violence – but France and Germany opposed the inclusion of the article on rape and prevented a majority in the EU Council.

This means that it remains a bitter reality in many EU countries that women have to show bruises or strangulation marks for rape to even be considered a criminal offence. This is significant, as a study by Avaaz from 2023 shows that in only 0.5 per cent of rape cases in the EU are the perpetrators convicted out of 1.8 million rapes in the EU per year! It is unacceptable to perpetuate this situation. In the new directive on combating violence against women and domestic violence, a minority of EU Member States prevented a common regulation on the criminal offence of rape, which would have protected women throughout Europe.

Failure in protection against online violence

Currently, the publication of nude images or manipulated images online or in chats against the will of the person depicted can only be penalised if the images are made public and serious harm is to be expected. This means, for example, that nude images shared in class or club chats are not automatically punishable. This is a scandal! Legislators should have sent a clear signal to protect women, especially in the case of manipulated AI images. A study from 2023 shows that porn accounts for 98% of all deepfake videos. Furthermore, 99% of victims with regard to this type of online abuse are women. For individual women, the damage is obvious – but apparently not for the European Ministers of Justice. This means that an industry that despises women continues to be supported, as images still do not have to be automatically deleted from platforms as illegal content.

The results are also frustrating when it comes to further digital protection against violence. In the case of incitement to hatred and violence against women, cyberstalking, and digital harassment, the new directive protects the perpetrators rather than the victims – here too, serious harm must be proven. In the case of hate speech and incitement to violence against women, Member States can even decide to enforce the law only in cases of disruption to public order. The EU has thus missed a great opportunity to send a clear message to the perpetrators and to put a stop to the increasing violence against women.

The increase in the number of places in women's shelters called for by the Greens/EFA and the European Parliament was also stopped by the EU Council. Women still have no certainty of finding a safe refuge in the event of domestic violence, let alone close to their home.

The figures on violence against women clearly show how urgently clear rules were needed to protect them: according to the European Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), one in three women in the EU has experienced physical or sexual violence since adolescence. Online violence is also increasing significantly and is directed, in particular, against young women, women in public life, women with a migration background and those in the queer community.

The EU institutions had been debating the directive for a long time. The first draft submitted by the EU Commission went much further, as it included rape as a European criminal offence. This draft was also supported by Ursula von der Leyen, who, in her 2023 speech on the State of the Union, said: "I know this house supports our proposal on combating violence against women. Here too, I would like that we cast into law another basic principle: no, means no. There can be no true equality without freedom from violence."

The European Parliament subsequently adopted the European Commission’s position in July 2023, and also spoke out in favour of including rape as a European criminal offence, banning various forms of cyber violence and increasing the number of places in women's shelters. Many of these important demands were adopted primarily due to pressure from the Green Group.

However, negotiations with the EU Council were difficult, particularly with regard to the definition of rape. France and Germany opposed the inclusion of the article on rape and prevented a majority in the EU Council. Marco Buschmann, the German FDP Federal Minister of Justice, and his ministry argued that, in their view, there was no EU legal basis. The European Commission, the Legal Service of the European Parliament and various legal opinions, such as those of the German Women Lawyers Association, take a different view.

Urgent call for action

It is now a matter of making much more ambitious national laws when implementing the directive in the Member States. I hope for a strong mobilisation of the women's movement, especially in the fight for effective protection against rapidly increasing digital violence, which is particularly challenging the freedom and dignity of young women in our society. Equal rights also include equal security – for all genders.


The views and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.