In 2012, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights carried out the first ever EU-wide survey on violence against women, a representative survey of 42,000 women. The headline findings show that a third of women in the EU have suffered physical and/or sexual violence, with the figure far higher in some countries.

It would be wrong to say these results were a surprise to experts in the field; other studies at national level such as a German survey for the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth of more than 10,000 women in 2003 painted a similar picture. However, this does not make the results any less shocking. We still have the sound of accusations made after the events in Cologne at New Year ringing in our ears that migrants are somehow “bringing” violence against women to Europe with them. In this context, FRA’s survey is a valuable reminder that gender-based violence was already very much in existence before Syrians or Afghans began crossing the Mediterranean.

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So what of violence against women in the workplace? FRA’s survey found that the higher a woman’s professional status, the greater the likelihood she will be subject to sexual harassment. 75% of women in the top management category have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime, compared with 41% of women who have never done paid work. This situation reflects the greater exposure to risk of sexual harassment that women who work, but also suggests that women in top positions could be more exposed to harassment in certain work environments. It indicates too they may be more likely to identify certain comments or actions as sexual harassment.

In order to change the situation, women need to know their rights vis-à-vis their boss and colleagues, and to make formal complaints. But here we see two further important findings of FRA’s survey. Firstly, that rights awareness is relatively low, with an average of 59% of respondents aware of national legislation to protect women who become victims of domestic violence. This figure goes down to around 30% in some countries.

At the same time, the number of women coming forward to report their experiences of violence or harassment is depressingly low: Only 13% of respondents reported the most serious incident of physical or sexual violence committed by a non-partner to the police. Reasons for not reporting it included “I dealt with it myself,” “it wasn’t serious enough” or citing a sense of shame as reasons for not coming forward.” A similar pattern can be seen for reporting of harassment.

Progress made

Nevertheless, things aren’t as bleak as they may seem. There are organisations to help victims of violence against women in all EU countries, and the law in some places has been tightened to better protect women. In addition, the EU’s Gender Equality Directive of 2006 stipulates that sexual harassment must be prohibited both in the workplace and also in the context of access to employment, vocational training and promotion.

Furthermore, the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, commonly known as the ‘Istanbul Convention’, came into force in August 2014. This was a milestone in the effort to combat violence and harassment against women, stipulating that “any form of unwanted verbal, non‐verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature … in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment” must be met with legal sanctions. 13 EU Member States have now ratified the Convention (although Germany has yet to do so), and one of the questions for monitoring implementation is specifically “what measures have been taken to encourage the establishment of protocols or guidelines … on how to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace?”.


However, despite the progress made in recent decades, there is no denying the fact that FRA’s survey as well as other national and regional surveys before it show there is still a lot to be done.

As the number of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in the EU increases, so too does the likelihood of women falling victim to labour exploitation in the unskilled sectors. Other FRA research into the labour exploitation of migrants in the EU shows that as well as gender, lack of knowledge of the local language and the attendant inability to negotiate or understand contracts adds to the probability of exploitation. Together with FRA’s findings on the prevalence of harassment suffered by women in management positions, we see that abuse of women’s rights permeates all areas of the labour market. It doesn’t take the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights to say: this situation must change.

PS Why I haven’t mentioned the data for Germany? Because – and this would be interesting to explore further – the German figures stay within a few percentage points of the EU average on almost every question. If you’d like to see for yourself, check out FRA’s interactive data explorer.

This Blogpost is also available to read in German.

Katya Andrusz FRAThis is a guest post from Katya Andrusz, speechwriter and communications expert at the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). As well as violence against women, she has written about other fundamental rights issues including migration, racism and xenophobia, and hate crime.

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Eine Antwort auf Women in the workplace

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