Study to identify and map existing data and resources on sexual violence against women in the EU

The study focused on sexual violence against women – including rape, marital rape, sexual abuse/assault, sexual coercion or sexual harassment outside the workplace – and covered resources used by EU Member States between 2007 and 2010. As a result, a database on sexual violence has been developed. The database includes information on sexual violence in the EU from a number of sources, such as: European and international resources; academic studies focusing on different aspects of violence against women; non-governmental organisations and their resources; training materials for professionals; information for victims of sexual violence; and awareness-raising campaigns.

Main findings

  • Few Member States have systematic professional training and protocols on sexual violence for the key actors who will be confronted with sexual violence, such as police officers, prosecutors, judges, health practitioners and social workers.
  • There are significant differences between Member States in terms of providing materials for victims of sexual violence, and materials for professionals dealing with victims, perpetrators and incidents.
  • While some Member States have several actors and resources working on and addressing sexual violence, others are lacking in this regard.
  • There is a lack of research studies focusing specifically on sexual violence or covering various target groups affected by sexual violence.

Gaps in data collection

  • The main gap concerning comparability is the lack of available and systematically collected data on sexual violence. In some Member States official data and statistics on sexual violence are not centrally stored and published but instead are scattered among various state actors. 
  • Criminal statistics on sexual violence in some Member States are not separated according to the type of sexual violence or according to the sex of the victim/perpetrator. Furthermore, official data sources generally do not provide information on the relationship between perpetrator and victim.
  • While rape is criminalised in all Member States, few EU Member States recognise other forms of sexual violence, such as sexual abuse, sexual coercion and sexual harassment as criminal offences. It is not always clear what the legislation entails, as the terms and categories are vague. 
  • Data on sexual violence is not harmonised at EU level and therefore cannot be effectively compared.

Study in detail

Sexual violence is a violation of human rights and a form of gender inequality. It is contrary to the principles of dignity, privacy, right against torture, inhuman or degrading treatment and non-discrimination. Historically, sexual violence has been addressed as an issue of morality and honour, and was often viewed as a crime against the family or society.

Gender-based violence, including sexual violence, is both a cause and a consequence of gender inequality. Even though this affects the lives of many women and girls in the European Union, very little actual information is available. Furthermore, the information on sexual violence against women is difficult to compare and there is no commonly agreed definition of sexual violence.

Art. 36 of the Istanbul Convention requires the following actions to be criminalised as sexual violence:
​ a   engaging in non‐consensual vaginal, anal or oral penetration of a sexual nature of the body of another person with any bodily part or object;
b   engaging in other non‐consensual acts of a sexual nature with a person;
c   causing another person to engage in non‐consensual acts of a sexual nature with a third person.

Socio-cultural context

Sexual violence is more than an act of abuse within the criminal law. It describes a violence caused and supported by social and cultural practices and gender inequality[1]. It finds its roots in cultural beliefs, norms, attitudes, etc. and is widely re-enforced by media that justifies or tolerates male sexual aggression against women. The EU Barometer  of 2010[2] found that in nine Member States, at least 20% of the respondents describe sexual violence as being a fairly serious issue as opposed to a very serious one. [3]

The public’s reluctance to treat sexual violence as a serious crime and to excuse the perpetrator’s behaviour is supported by several widespread gender-based beliefs, in which rape is often portrayed as a sexual act which men are entitled to, rather than pinpointing it as violence. Furthermore, reference is often made to various stereotypes such as women's infidelity, or secret approval, and victim blaming.[4]

The legal practice of marrying the perpetrator, which was only recently removed from the penal codes of several EU Member States, is an example of how traditional norms affect the tolerance to sexual violence. Similarly, marital rape, although now explicitly criminalised in almost all Member States[5] is still a practice that does not often cause public outrage. Another socio-cultural factor related to sexual violence is the dominant model of masculinity, where men may use violence as a means of proving their "masculinity". These rape stereotypes are barriers not just to reporting sexual violence but also to its investigation and prosecution. [6]


It is difficult to clearly distinguish sexual violence from other types and forms of gender-based violence, since it covers a wide range of acts of a sexual nature: assault, abuse, unwanted sexual advances and harassment, rape, harmful practices and sexual exploitation. The Beijing Platform for Action identifies sexual violence, as occurring in the family (sexual abuse of female children, marital rape, female genital mutilation, other traditional harmful practices), occurring within the general community (rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, trafficking in women, forced prostitution), and sexual violence perpetrated or condoned by the state and during armed conflict (systematic rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy).

No universally agreed definition on sexual violence exists.

The World Health Organization broadly defines sexual violence as:
"any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work".
(World Health Organization, World report on violence and health, Geneva, 2002)

According to the Report of the UN Secretary-General, it also entails attempted or completed sex acts with a woman who is ill, disabled, under pressure or under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.[8]

The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating violence against women and domestic violence[9] describes the conducts that fall within the scope of sexual violence, including acts committed against former or current spouses or partners, as follows:

engaging in non-consensual vaginal, anal or oral penetration of a sexual nature of the body of another person with any bodily part or object;
engaging in other non-consensual acts of a sexual nature with a person;
causing another person to engage in non-consensual acts of a sexual nature with a third person.

European legal framework

Gender equality is a fundamental principle of the EU, enshrined in the Treaty of the European Community. In 1995, following the Beijing World Conference on Women, the European Council requested an annual review of the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA) in the Member States. Other Council initiatives which deal with gender-based violence include: the 2008 EU guidelines on violence against women and girls and combating all forms of discrimination against them, the 2010 Council Conclusions on the Eradication of Violence against Women in the European Union, and the European Pact for Equality, 2010-2020. The Directives, which address sexual harassment (2002/73/EC) and human trafficking (2011/36/EU), contain legally binding decisions on sexual violence.

In 2009, the European Parliament’s Resolution on the elimination of violence against women urged Member States to recognise acts of sexual violence against women, including those committed within marriage and intimate informal relationships or where committed by male relatives, as a crime and prompted the use of automatic (ex officio) prosecution[10]. Furthermore, the EU Parliament 2011 resolution on priorities and outline of a new EU policy framework to fight violence against women emphasises that research on gender and sexual violence should be included as a multidisciplinary area in the future Eighth Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development.[11] The same resolution also proposes the development of a directive on gender-based violence, with legally binding measures in this area.

The European Commission’s strategy for equality between women and men 2010-2015 sets an end to gender-based violence as one of its priorities and actions. Moreover, the European Commission Women’s Charter states that "Europe does not tolerate gender-based violence" and announces further commitment and efforts to combat gender-based violence.[12] The Daphne Programme provides financial support for the prevention and support of projects for victims of violence[13].

In 2002, the Council of Europe recognised sexual violence as a violation of the person’s physical, psychological and/or sexual integrity and encouraged European countries to take appropriate measures to penalise all types of acts, no matter what the relationship with the perpetrator.[14] In addition, in 2011 the Council of Europe opened for signature the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (CAHVIO); this is the first legally binding instrument in this area at European level. The Convention stresses the criminalisation of sexual violence and the need to support victims.[15]


Reliable data on sexual violence is scarce and not easily comparable between the EU Member States. However, the available sources may give an approximate overview of the extent of this problem in the European Union.

For example, in the Czech Republic, lifetime prevalence of intimate partner and/or non-partner sexual violence was estimated at 35%, in Denmark at 28%, at 13% in Germany and in Poland at 17%.[16] A study in Ireland found that over 40% of women and 28% of men reported some form of sexual abuse or assault in their lifetime and 10% of women had been raped at some time during their life.[17] In France the figure for sexual violence against adult women is 11%.[18] Survey data shows 23.7% of Italian women had been victims of sexual violence[19] while the figure for Sweden is 34%.[20]

Sexual violence committed by an intimate partner remains a serious challenge. Contrary to the common belief that a stranger commits the rape, studies show that very often the victim knows the abuser. This is confirmed by an in-depth study on attrition rates of reported rape cases in 11 EU countries that indicate private space (61%) as the most common assault location and shows that two-thirds of the victims knew their abuser.[21] These findings are supported by other studies as well and have further implications for the type of support, protection and prevention programmes, as well as for the legal justice system[22].

Sexual violence experienced by adolescents is quite common. A survey[23] of the Baltic region countries (EE, LT, NO, PL, SE) identified a high percentage of girls who had been sexually abused: 42.5% of girls in Estonia and 56.2% in Sweden reported having been touched in an indecent way, while around 10% in all countries reported abusive sexual intercourse. Another study[24] (covering CY, EL, LT, LV, MT) found that unwanted sexual experiences are part of adolescent girls’ relationships, and indicated a trend of male dominance in the relationship with young women.

The prevalence of female genital mutilation in the EU is another particular concern. It is estimated that every year, 180,000 women undergo or are in danger of undergoing this procedure.[25] EIGE launched a study to map the current situation and trends of FGM; the results of the study are expected by the end of 2012.


Prevention is one of the key strategies to combat sexual violence. The study on sexual violence commissioned by EIGE in 2011, provides an overview of existing available prevention programmes and materials in the European Union.

Several Member States have developed sexual violence training programmes for professionals, such as the police, prosecutors, forensic examiners, social workers etc. Around half of the Member States produced materials including training manuals, intervention protocols, guidelines, etc., available for professionals dealing with sexual violence. Awareness-raising and/or prevention campaigns on sexual violence were launched in 11 EU Member States in the last five years. Some campaigns focused on certain critical areas, such as marital rape, the use of rape drugs or were aimed at changing societal attitudes in relation to rape and addressing women-blaming attitudes.

All the collected materials and data on sexual violence in the EU will be made available through EIGE’s Resource and Documentation Centre.[26]

Protection and support

In most EU Member States there is no specific protection for sexual violence complainants, such as restrictions on reporting the victim’s name to the media, protection orders, etc.[27] The European Commission has proposed a new Directive, which would establish minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime, including victims of sexual violence, identified as a vulnerable category.[28]

Intervention protocols give guidelines on how to question, respect and support the victims at different stages of the process and such documents have been developed for the police in seven Member States. Ten countries have protocols for forensic examiners or health practitioners.

There are fewer specialised support services for victims of sexual violence than there are for cases of domestic violence. Three EU countries have a national sexual violence helpline; six Member States have rape crisis centres and eight countries report having sexual assault referral centres that provide forensic examination services, short-term counselling, and advocacy.[29] Materials for victims, which aim to provide background information on the types, causes and consequences of sexual violence and practical information on access to support for victims, are not available in all Member States.

Additionally, eight Member States have available databases of agencies and organisations involved in fighting sexual violence and around half of them have a specialised NGO with a focus on fighting sexual violence.  It is important to note that where countries have strong networks of rape crisis centres, the number of calls is high: in 2009, 14,289 calls were received by the direct helpline of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, of which 82% were from women.

Criminalisation of sexual violence in the European Union

Rape is criminalised in all 27 EU Member States. However, some have a broader definition of rape than others. The Feasibility Study[30] on the standardisation of violence against women in national legislation commissioned by the European Commission in 2010 found that there are many EU countries that still require proof of physical resistance (few include "coercive circumstances" and have a solely consent based standard) or do not cover all forms of rape (e.g. penetration by object or other body parts, etc.).

The legal definitions of other sexual violence acts are not harmonised, either. For example, sexual coercion variously covers non-penetrative offences but in some cases it also includes other penetrative acts.[31] Some Member States criminalise other sexual offences, such as exhibitionism, distribution of pornography, purchasing sexual services, etc. Additionally, unclear terms such as "abduction" "seduction", "offences against decency" are sometimes used to describe other types of sexual violence.

Both the European Parliament[32] and the Council of Europe[33] recommend a consent-based standard in the legal definition of rape and sexual abuse. In this view, the legislation should take into account the effects of "date-rape drugs" and include both "the freedom and capacity to consent", which will be assessed in the context of the surrounding circumstances.[34] However, the issue of consent may raise further questions, as there is a lack of empirical work on the communication of willingness and consent to sexual relations.


Sexual violence remains one of the least reported crimes. Reported estimations on cases of rape range between 1-12%, and a smaller percentage of cases are prosecuted. [35] The lowest reporting rates of rape (less than 6 per 100,000 inhabitants) are found in Eastern and Southern Europe, while Sweden registers one of the highest reporting rates (46.51).[36] Women fear the reactions of family and society and also mistrust the legal system, leading them to be reluctant to report cases, especially if the violence occurs within in the family.[37]

Data shows that 14 European countries have noted falls in rape convictions, since 2000, despite increases in the number of cases reported, while overall, two-thirds of European countries have a falling convictions rate.[38]

Amnesty International identified several obstacles that impede women victims of sexual violence from having access to justice. These include a narrow legal framework, lack of a safe and timely avenue to report the crime, inadequate collection of forensic evidence and provision of medical care, lack of access to appropriate health services, inefficient and limited crime investigation, and unfair, inefficient trials.[39] Additionally, there are the risks of second victimisation, such as: victims being charged with a crime (prostitution, adultery, etc.), losing custody of their children, being blamed for the sexual violence act because of the influence of drugs or alcohol, their dress, whereabouts, sexual history, being treated differently because of being a sex worker, etc.

Reporting rates also show whether women increasingly believe that states are effective in addressing violence, while the proportion of cases that are prosecuted and which result in convictions measures whether policy changes have had an impact. In this respect, increased reporting to institutions and in surveys should be understood as an indicator of success in challenging tolerance and strengthening women’s beliefs that they have a right to protection and redress.[40]

Marginalised groups

Sexual violence often targets marginalised groups, such as women with disabilities, homeless women and their children, migrants, Roma women, prison population, sex workers, or women with mental health problems.[41] Adolescent and young women are another vulnerable group. Some of the risks they face are date rape or forced initial intercourse, forced prostitution and trafficking.[42] The intersection of gender with other dimensions, such as age, race, class, ethnicity, etc. reveals the complexity of this issue. The use of intersectionality as an analytical tool in collecting data and implementing policy programmes, allows identifying forms of multiple discrimination and target groups that would otherwise remain invisible.[43]

Men and sexual violence

Men are by far the most common perpetrators in cases of sexual violence, and the dominant model of traditional masculinity together with gender inequality explains, to a great extent, this pattern of violence. However, men also have a crucial contribution in fighting and preventing sexual violence, not only by denouncing and raising their voices against it, but also by promoting gender equality and acting as agents of change and role models. EIGE addresses the role of men in gender equality as a horizontal issue and in 2010 launched a background study on the involvement of men in gender equality. The study has provided an accurate database of actors in the field of men and masculinities in the EU with references to their main products and the methods they use in their work. The collected information is being processed, and is to be made public to European users by the end of 2012.

Sexual violence in armed conflict

In armed conflict, sexual violence is a common tactic of war against civilian targets. About one-third of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia cases involved sexual violence against civilians.[44] It is estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped in Bosnia, during the conflict in the early 90s and between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.[45]

While sexual violence during armed conflict has been explained as an unfortunate consequence of war, studies clearly show that women’s bodies are sites of war and sexual violence is a wartime strategy to humiliate and dominate/emasculate communities. This strategy is linked to patriarchal conceptions of female sexuality as honour and purity.[46]

In 2000, UN Resolution 1325 called for protective measures for women and girls against gender-based violence in armed conflict. In 2008, the UN Security Council[47] made a further step towards ending impunity and ensuring justice for sexual crimes and acknowledged that sexual violence in armed conflict can constitute both a war crime and a crime against humanity. The European Union expressed its political support and commitment for the implementation of both UN Resolutions and developed a comprehensive approach for this purpose.[48] Additionally, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly[49] called for an extension to the Resolution for the girls and women who are forced to enlist in the army and who do not currently fall within its scope.

All in all, in the context of armed conflict, sexual violence is now recognised as a form or constituent of war crimes, genocide, torture, enslavement, outrages upon personal dignity and inhumane treatment, body and mental harms and other atrocity crimes.[50]


[1]The Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, 1995, acknowledges that violence against women occurs as a result of embedded social values, cultural beliefs and unequal power relations between men and women. Available at:

[2] Special Eurobarometer 344, Domestic Violence against Women Report, 2010, available at:

[3]Idem, Austria, 20%; Estonia, 21%; Hungary, 20%; Latvia, 24%; Lithuania, 26%; Poland, 24%; Portugal, 26%; Romania, 22%; Slovenia, 22%.

[4] Rape Crisis (England and Wales), Common myths about rape, available at:

[6] Hagemann-White, C. Kelly, R. Römkens, Feasibility study to assess the possibilities opportunities and needs to standardise national legislation on violence against women, violence against children and sexual orientation violence, European Commission, 2010, available at:

[7] World Health Organization, World report on violence and health, Geneva, 2002.

[8] Report of the Secretary-General, In-depth study on all forms of violence against women, United Nations, General Assembly, 61st Session, 2006, available at:

[9] Council of Europe, Idem.

[10] European Parliament, Resolution of 26 November 2009 on the elimination of violence against women.

[11] European Parliament, Resolution on priorities and outline of a new EU policy framework to fight violence against women, 2010/2209(INI), 5 April 2011.

[12] European Commission, A Strengthened Commitment to Equality between Women and Men, A Women’s Charter, (COM) 2010.

[13] Daphne III Programme for combating violence against children, adolescents and women, 2007-2013. More info available at:

[14] Council of Europe, Recommendation Rec (2002) 5 on the Committee of Ministers to Member States on the protection of women against violence, 2002.

[15] Council of Europe, Ad Hoc Committee on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (CAHVIO), Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Convention CETS, No. 210), opened for signature on 11 May 2011, Istanbul, available at: <>.

[16] UN Women, Violence against Women Prevalence Data: Surveys by Country, compiled by UN Women as of March 2011, accessible at: <>.

[17] H. McGee et al, The SAVI Report, Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland, The Liffey Press and Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, 2002, available at: <>.

[18] C. Crepaldi et al. (coord), Violence against women and the role of gender equality, social inclusion and health strategies, Synthesis Report, for the European Commission, 2010, p. 75, available at:

[19] Italian National Statistics Institute (ISTAT), Survey on Violence against Women, 2006.

[20] Eva Lundgren et al., Captured Queen, Men’s violence against women in ‘equal’ Sweden- a prevalence study, University of Uppsala, 2001, available at: <>.

[21] L. Kelly, J. Lowett, Different systems, similar outcomes? Tracking attrition in reported rape cases in eleven countries, Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, 2009, accessible at: <>.

[22] H. McGee et al., The SAVI Report, Idem (Ireland); J. Pieters et al., Idem (Belgium); INSEE, Les violences faites aux femmes, INSEE Premiere, No. 1180, 2008 (France); Alpha Research, Sexual abuse of women in Bulgaria, 2011, accessible at:<> (30.09.2011).

[23] S. Mossige et al. (eds.), The Baltic Sea Regional Study on Adolescents’ Sexuality, NOVA, 2007, available at: <>f.

[24] The Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies (coord.), Date rape cases among young women, Strategies for support and prevention, University of Nicosia Press, Nicosia, 2008, available at: <>.

[25] European Parliament Resolution in Combating Female Genital Mutilation in the EU, 2008/2071(INI).


[27]Hagemann-White, C. Kelly, R. Römkens, Idem.

[28] COM (2011)275, Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and the Council establishing minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime, 18 May 2011, accessible at:

[29] Hagemann-White, C. Kelly, R. Römkens, Idem.

[30] Hagemann-White, C. Kelly, R. Römkens, Feasibility study to assess the possibilities opportunities and needs to standardise national legislation on violence against women, violence against children and sexual orientation violence, European Commission, 2010.

[31] Hagemann-White, C. Kelly, R. Römkens, Idem.

[32] European Parliament, Resolution on priorities and outline of a new EU policy framework to fight violence against women, 2010/2209(INI), 5 May 2011.

[33] Council of Europe, Recommendation Rec (2002)5, Idem.

[34] Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, Recommendation 1977(2007), Sexual assaults linked to date-rape drugs.

[35] C. Crepaldi et al., The SAVI Report

[36] L. Kelly, J. Lowett, Idem.

[37] C. Crepaldi et al., Idem ; H. McGee et al., Idem.

[38] L. Kelly, J. Lowett, Different systems, similar outcomes? Tracking attrition in reported rape cases in eleven countries, Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, 2009.

[39] Amnesty International, Six points checklist on justice for violence against women, 2010, available at:> (02 September 2011).

[40] Yakin Ertürk, Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Indicators on violence against women and state response, Human Rights Council, 29.January 2008, available at:

[41] H. McGee et al., The SAVI Report, Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland, The Liffey Press and Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, 2002.

[42] WHO, Adolescent girls in the European Region: highlights from a literature review, available at:

[43] A. Thompson (ed.), Idem.

[44] UN, Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Review of the sexual violence elements of the judgements of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and the Special Court for Sierra Leone in the light of Security Council Resolution 1820, 2010, available at:

[45] Report of the Secretary-General, In-depth study on all forms of violence against women, United Nations, General Assembly, 61st Session, 2006.

[46] A. Thompson (ed.), 15 years of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its causes and consequences (1994-2009)-A Critical Review, 2009, available at:

[47] UN Security Council, Resolution 1820, adopted at its 5916th meeting, June 2008, available at:

[48] Council of the European Union, Comprehensive approach to the EU implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1820 on women, peace and security, Brussels, 1 December 2008, available at:

[49] Council of Europe, Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men, Sexual violence against women in armed conflict, Report, 2009, available at:

[50] UN, Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Idem.