Webinar on Femicide Observatories and Psychological Violence against Women, especially Mothers
On the eve of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, the Coalition of Faith-Based Organizations (CFBO), in cooperation with the Sigmund Freud University (SFU) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), FEM.A (Verein Feministischer Alleinerzieherinnen), the Alliance of NGOs for Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, the UN Studies Association, the Soroptimists and the NGO Committee for Status of Women organized a Webinar on Femicide Observatories and Psychological Violence against Women, especially Mothers. It was co-sponored by the Permanent Missions of Mexico and El Salvador to the UN (Vienna).The Executive Director of UNFPA, Natalia Kanem supported the event by asking two senior gender experts of UNFPA HQ, New York,to attend it on her behalf.
The webinar, which was viewed over 1oo participants (excluding the panellists and the organizing team), was opened and moderated by the Mexican Ambassador Luis Javier Campuzano Piña. In his opening remarks, the Ambassador spoke about the situation Mexico had been facing regarding femicide and violence against women as well as about Mexico´s initiative to combat femicide. Mexico remains a leader at the United Nations in promoting attention to combatting violence against women.
Co-organizer Karin Bruckmüller of the SFU, in her welcoming remarks, emphasized the relevance of the interdisciplinary research of Law, Medicine, Psychology and Psychotherapy to achieve the common goal of combatting psychological violence and femicide. She stressed that one of the aims of research had to be the identification of concrete and effective measures to prevent violence and therefore victims of violence. Awareness-raising was and would always be important. Therefore the SFU was glad to be part of the event.
Karin Bruckmüller´s speech was followed by welcoming remarks ofco-organizer Michael Platzer of the CFBO. He reminded the audience that it had been ten years since the first Femicide Symposium in Vienna had been held with the participation of diplomats, academics, and activists. It had been attended by Diane Russell who had organized the International Femicide Tribunal and had promoted the usage of the word “Femicide” in the USA. This great pioneer of Feminism unfortunately had died last year. However, her spirit lived on in the campaigns of many international organizations and national efforts. Unfortunately, Austria had still not established a Femicide Observatory to examine the rising murder rate of women, as recommended by the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Dubravka Simonovic. Michael Platzer was extremely pleased that this webinar had attracted the most senior officials of the Austrian Government, other diplomats, a Member of the European Parliament, academics from the Sigmund Freud University, experts from UNODC, UNFPA, the Coalition of Faith-Based Organizations, the Alliance of NGOs for Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, the Committee on the Status of Women, the Soroptimists and other NGOs who were operationally involved in protecting women, as well as young activists and concerned mothers. The hope was that the conclusions of this international webinar and one following on 1 December devoted to Austria would lead to a Plan of Action to be delivered before the end of the 16 Days.
The main contributions, viewpoints and scientific findings during the webinar were made by the following panellists:
–Alma Zadic, Federal Minister of Justice of Austria
–Elena Kountoura, Member of the European Parliament
–Mirella Dummar Frahi, Chief of UNODC’s Civil Society Unit
–Barbara Rothmüller, Sociologist, Sigmund Freud University
–Thomas Beck, Clinical Psychologist, Department of Medical Psychology, Medical University Innsbruck
–Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald, Independent. Scholars, Human Rights Educators and Defenders, Canada
–Anna Alvazzi del Frate, Chair, Alliance of NGOs on. Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice
Minister Alma Zadic stressed that, because Austria had ratified the Istanbul Convention, it was obliged to collect relevant data on a regular basis. „Effective political measures need to be based on solid, reliable and comparable data and as a first step, it was therefore important particularly to improve the data situation regarding domestic violence in Austria. As you are all aware, domestic violence is very often the harbinger of femicide. Therefore, we need to find a coherent definition of domestic violence to close the existing data gaps. Based on this definition comparable scientific work can commence which will then form a basis for better prevention mechanisms.“ As a first step, Austria had been analysing all murder cases of women and children since 2016. The analysis of 140 relevant cases was intended to provide data which would not only provide public prosecutors with a tool to better recognize risk factors, but also help implement effective measures for preventing femicides. Moreover, in her view, „effective prevention can only be achieved through regular exchange of information”.
As Barbara Rothmüller and Mirella Dummar Frahi pointed out, femicide and violence, especially psychological violence, had been on the increase globally, especially since the Covid-19 shutdowns. Barbara Rothmüller substantiated this aspect by evaluating her online survey on transformations of intimate relationships during the shutdowns and referred to the serious mental and physical health consequences of domestic and psychological violence on women. Moreover, domestic and psychological violence could also significantly damage the development of children. There was a particular risk of internalizing and externalizing disorders, such as depression and aggressive behaviour. She also stressed that children growing up in households in which they witnessed violence against their mothers needed support.
Mirella Dummar Frahi reported that since 2010, UNODC had been supporting countries to ensure that gender-based violence was addressed in a victim-centred manner. For example, UNODC built capacity of Member States for the collection and analysis of relevant data on crimes involving gender-based violence, including victimization surveys and data collected by police, prosecution services or the judiciary. As part of its response to COVID-19, UNODC had adapted its programmes and initiatives to respond to an increased demand for essential police and justice services by women survivors of violence. Moreover, UNODC offered targeted technical assistance and advisory services to enhance criminal justice responses to violence against women (1) to end impunity of perpetrators and to enhance victims‘ safety and empowerment. In conclusion, she stressed the importance of engaging civil society to encourage collaboration on observatories on femicide which, in her view, could become „the eyes and ears on the ground on the status of crime, crime prevention and criminal justice with a focus on women“.
Thomas Beck spoke about the relevant neurobiological processes in the brain triggered by children witnessing domestic violence and the associated and consequent age-specific consequences. Those consequences ranged from, for example, increased irritability, sleep disturbances, separation anxiety and excessive clinging in babies and toddlers, difficult emotional regulation, defiant behaviour and psychosomatic complaints in older children, feelings of shame and low self-esteem as well as aggressive behavior impairing social integration in school children, to emotional and instrumental parentification, substance abuse and the inability to establish intimate relationships in youth. As Thomas Beck concluded, witnessing violence against a primary caretaker, like the mother, had a serious psychological impact for children. Therefore children did not have to be “directly” affected by domestic violence in order to suffer the consequences from it. He concluded that it was important for children to have contacts with both parents. However, if violence was involved, it could certainly not be in the children´s best interest to have contacts with the abusive parent.
Elena Kountoura spoke about a ground-breaking report on the impact of intimate partner violence and custody rights on women and children (2) which she had initiated. As she stressed, „The report was adopted by a large majority of the Plenary of the European Parliament on 6 October 2021. It has been submitted, as a resolution, to the European Commission to be taken into consideration in its forthcoming directive for combatting gender-based violence in the EU. With this report, the European Parliament, for the first time, focuses not only on women but also on children who have been impacted either as victims or as witnesses of such violence. We call on the European Commission and all Member States to adopt a holistic European framework in support of the fundamental right of every women and child to a life without violence.“
According to Ms. Kountoura, „Intimate partner violence is often ignored in determining custody in Member States. The trauma experienced by a child in witnessing violence is often underestimated during the judicial proceedings … This is why the European Parliament stated clearly in the report that the failure to recognize and address instances of intimate partner violence in determining child custody and visitation rights is a violation of the right of women and children to a life without violence and is incompatible with the best interest of the child. The protection of women and children from violence and the best interest of the child must be paramount and should always take precedence over other criteria when establishing the arrangements for custody and visitation rights. When the mother is a victim of violence, we [the European Parliament] consider that she should be granted full custody, and that custody and visitation rights of the abusive partner should be evoked as this is the only way to protect her from further violence and secondary victimization. Both parents must indeed participate actively in the life and upbringing of their child but not if it is against the best interest of the child. In any case, the European Parliament opposes the mandatory shared custody, because each case must be ruled individually, based on what is the best interest of the child, as defined in the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.“
Ms. Kountoura also stressed that „Shared custody situation of intimate partner violence exposes women to continuous preventable violence by forcing them to stay in geographical proximity of their abusers and subjecting them to further exposure to physical and psychological violence as well as emotional abuse which can have a direct or indirect impact on their children … A further concern is the so-called parental alienation syndrome and similar concepts and terms. The scientific community does not recognize such terms and criticizes them strongly. Still they are often being used by the abusive fathers in the context of intimate partner violence as a strategy against the mother victim of violence, putting into question her parental skills, dismissing her word and disregarding the violence to which children are exposed … This is why my report to the European Parliament firmly rejects the use of this pseudo syndrome and calls on the Member States not to recognize it in their judicial practise and law and to discourage or even to prohibits its use in court proceedings during the investigations to determine the existence of violence.“
Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald spoke about non-state torture (NST) which meant torture committed against women and girls by parents, family members, spouses, guardians, human traffickers, johns, pimps, pornographers and others in various public and private places. They all were considered to be non-state actors which differentiated them from state actors, such as the military, police and others committing state torture. Psychological non-state torture was violence against women that occurred when others did not listen to the women´s disclosures that they had been tortured by non-state torturers. Physical and sexualized torture inflicted psychological violence with consequences that left women with emotional terror, horror, powerlessness. Sometimes, because of the severity of the torture, pain and suffering and degradation that occurred, the only escape might be that a woman died by suicide which, in fact, was then femicide. To promote resiliency for women non-State tortured, they needed to be informed that non-state torture was a crime and that their painful psychological traumatic responses were the result of being criminally victimized. In conclusion, Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald referred to their recent book, Women Unsilenced Our Refusal To Let Torturer-Traffickers Win.
Anna Alvazzi del Frate (3) gave a relevant overview about psychological gender-based violence which often included harm, abuse and controlling behaviours caused by an intimate or ex-partner. The consequences of psychological violence included, among others, serious short- and long-term physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health problems for victims who were most frequently women. Children who witnessed any form of violence might suffer a range of behavioural and emotional disturbances. These could also be associated with perpetrating or experiencing violence later in life. For measuring psychological violence, a dedicated methodology, including specific questionnaires, sampling and training of interviewers was important. Psychological violence might be the most difficult form of violence against women to eradicate, requiring addressing cultural and root causes, including better education of children to promote mutual respect of the other sex. Civil society actors had provided important contributions in recent decades in highlighting the extent and nature of violence against women, including psychological violence, as well as data gaps and calling for robust and comprehensive evidence to be collected. Civil society actors should be involved in the development and monitoring of action plans to help ensure that these delivered practical results for victims and were feasible and sustainable.
Ambassador Julia Emma Villatoro Tario of El Salvador concluded the meeting by summarizing that all panelists agreed on the serious consequences that femicide and violence in all its forms had on victims. Regrettably, the current statics showed that violence against women and girls were high and continued increasing daily. The psychological, physical and neurobiological damages caused not only to women and girls but also to children witnessing violence needed to be treated adequately. Action was required to prevent domestic violence, including psychological violence. Data should be collected on a solid and realiable way to be analysed to identify risk factors of this threat. UNODC had already supported the issuance and updating of standards and norms as well as resolutions in that field which were available online to be consulted as well as technical assistance tools that might be used by Member States. Likewise, other institutions and NGOs had also made surveys, studies and compiled data to show the impact of the Covid-19 panedemic as well as the impact of violence in its different forms. The adoption and implementation of tailor-made policies was of utmost importance, such as national plans, legislation, programmes and the creation of institutions dedicated to address this matter. The experience of several countries, such as Mexico, had demonstrated the important role an observatory dedicated to femicide issues might play to tackle violence against women. The contribution of the civil society in this area was very important. Governments and civil society had already reacted to these new challenges. However, much remained to be done, and women and children needed our help. Ambassador Villatoro Tario therefore strongly encouraged everybody to continue making efforts to stop gender-based violence.
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JUSTICE MINISTER ZADIC: “CLOSE DATA GAPS ON DOMESTIC VIOLENCE”.
Effective prevention measures against femicides require a solid data basis. That was the tenor of an international online panel discussion on the establishment of observation centers for femicides and victims of domestic violence on Wednesday. The event, organized by the “Coalition of Faith-Based Organizations” together with Sigmund Freud Private University, also featured Justice Minister Alma Zadic (Green Party) with a video message.
With 319 murders of women and 458 attempted murders since 2010, there is still a lot of potential for improvement in prevention measures in Austria as well, as Interior Minister Karl Nehammer and Women’s Affairs Minister Susanne Raab (both ÖVP) already pointed out at the second Violence Protection Summit on Tuesday. However, data on this has not yet been systematically collected in Austria. “We need to find a clear definition of domestic violence in order to close this data gap. Based on this, we can create better prevention measures” said Justice Minister Zadic in her video message to the panel discussion on Wednesday.
Data on domestic violence and femicides must be collected on a comparable basis regionally as well as nationwide, Zadic continued. “I stand by this, not least because Austria has ratified the Istanbul Convention, which obliges us to collect relevant data.” As a first step, she said, she has therefore had all femicides since 2016 evaluated in a study and analyzed for commonalities. This, she said, should help investigative agencies better assess risk factors. She did not comment on the possible establishment of an observatory for femicides and domestic violence.
In 2015, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Dubravka Simonovic, called for the establishment of “femicide observatories” based on comparable data at the regional, national and global levels. This is intended to identify and eliminate gaps in the respective legislations, deficiencies at the level of investigative authorities or in implementation. This call has also been endorsed by the Beijing Platform for Action – so named after the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 – at its 25th anniversary meeting in October 2019.
Austria is among the 189 supporters of the Beijing Declaration. In its most recent five-year implementation report, published in 2019, Austria cites, for example, the tightening of the offense of “sexual harassment” (“Po-Grapsch-Paragraph”) as well as improvements in victim protection. However, the European Observatory on Femicide, which now has 23 member countries, still has to do without Austria.
The International Day against Violence against Women on November 25 marks the start of “16 Days against Violence against Women” until Human Rights Day on December 10. During this period, numerous events will also be held in Austria under the motto “Orange the World” to draw attention to this problem and call for solutions.
Speech by Elena Kountoura