LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - One in three women in the European Union has experienced some form of physical or sexual violence, with the highest levels recorded in Nordic countries renowned for promoting gender equality, the first survey of its kind showed on Wednesday.
More than 42,000 women in the EU's 28 countries were questioned about a range of experiences - from being pushed, shoved, slapped, cut, beaten and burned to being raped, harassed in the workplace, prevented from leaving the house and stalked.
In the first and biggest cross-country survey of its kind, 52 percent of Danish women interviewed said they had experienced physical and/or sexual violence at least once since the age of 15, followed by 47 percent of Finnish women and 46 percent of Swedish women, according to the poll by the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA).
At the other end of the scale, only 19 percent of Polish women reported being physically and/or sexually assaulted, followed by 20 percent of Austrian women and 21 percent of Croatian women.
The findings suggest violence against women across all EU states is widespread, affecting women from all walks of life and socio-economic brackets, the survey’s authors said.
"Currently a lot of the focus at the EU political level is on things like female genital mutilation, forced marriages and trafficking in women and girls for sexual exploitation," FRA head of research Joanna Goodey told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
"Our survey results show that the general population of women in the EU are experiencing very high levels of violence - and the numbers are huge. We're talking about half the population, not only about specific groups in the population who are particularly vulnerable to certain types of abuse."
The Vienna-based FRA, which collects data comparing how EU members perform in protecting human rights, said an estimated 13 million women in the EU - more than the total population of Belgium or Greece - had experienced some form of physical violence in the 12 months before they were interviewed.
Some 3.7 million women had experienced sexual violence in the same period.
But only a third of women who had suffered abuse at the hands of a partner reported it to police or a victim support organisation. It was even worse for women attacked by someone other than their partner - just a quarter reported the incident.
"If this were happening outside the European Union and these figures were, say, for another continent or another part of the world, we'd feel (expect) EU leaders would say 'this is a call for action, this is unacceptable'," Goodey said.
"The EU and member states need to wake up and say this is about equality between men and women and we really need to address this at multiple levels."
Goodey acknowledged that the results from the EU's famously liberal Nordic countries would surprise many.
Denmark not only has a woman head of government, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who has been in charge since 2011, but regularly features in the World Economic Forum's top 10 countries with the smallest gender gap, along with Finland and Sweden.
One possible explanation for the difference in results is that women may be less likely to feel stigma talking about incidents of violence in countries with a better record of gender equality.
Women are also more likely to go out to work, socialise and date in countries where they enjoy greater equality - putting them at potential risk of sexual harassment in the workplace, for example.
Some countries have higher levels of general violence than others. For example, more urbanisation in a member state is generally related to higher crime rates, FRA said.
Women are also often at increased risk of violence in countries with a strong culture of binge-drinking.
"There are a lot of assumptions with the results. People assume that in Mediterranean countries or central/ eastern European countries, the rates should be high ... but it's far more complex than that," Goodey said.
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