A huge and damning new report revealed Wednesday “extensive” physical or sexual abuse against women across the EU, with one in three falling victim but few going to the police.

Five per cent of the 42,000 women interviewed said they have been raped, and just over one in 10 experienced sexual violence by an adult before they were 15, according to the survey by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA).

The report “shows that physical, sexual and psychological violence against women is an extensive human rights abuse in all EU Member States,” the Vienna-based group’s director Morten Kjaerum said. Just over one in three women has experienced physical or sexual assault, and one in five from either a current or previous partner.

With the potential emotional and psychological consequences “long-lasting and deep-seated”, Kjaerum called for measures “to be taken to a new level now”.

The FRA, which talked face-to-face with at least 1,500 women aged 18-74 in each of the European Union’s 28 countries, said this was the most comprehensive study of its kind to date, both in the EU and worldwide. “What emerges is a picture of extensive abuse that affects many women’s lives, but is systematically under-reported to the authorities,” Kjaerum said.

The FRA probed women’s experiences of physical, sexual and psychological violence including domestic abuse, as well as stalking, sexual harassment, childhood experiences and the role of the Internet.

It highlighted how few women go to the authorities. “Only 14 per cent of women reported their most serious incident of intimate partner violence to the police, and 13 per cent reported their most serious incident of non-partner violence to the police,” Kjaerum said.

Over a fifth of the victims of sexual violence suffered from panic attacks, over a third became depressed and 43 per cent spoke of difficulty in subsequent relationships as a result.

Country differences

There were surprising differences between countries, although the FRA stressed that this could be due to a number of factors and not necessarily because levels of violence were higher.

Nordic countries, for example, came off badly, with 52 per cent of women in Denmark saying they have suffered physical and/or sexual abuse, while the rate was 47 per cent in Finland and 46 per cent in Sweden.

At the other end of the scale, the report found that 19 per cent of women in Poland said they had suffered in the same way, 22 per cent in Spain and 21 per cent in Croatia. Angela Beausang, head of the Swedish women’s refuge network Roks, told AFP that the higher figure for Sweden was because women there are more aware of the law and how they can get help. “I don’t think Sweden has a bigger problem than other countries ... I think other countries have a bigger problem because they don’t have the laws and the awareness,” Beausang said.

Maja Mamula from Croatian women rights organisation Zenska Soba (“Women’s Room”), the new EU member’s only NGO specialised in dealing with sexual violence, agreed. “Croatia is a country where rape in marriage was only labelled as a criminal act in 1998,” Mamula said. “There is still a large number of women from older generations or in rural areas who are not aware it is punishable.”

“We still have a lot to work in order to raise awareness of the problem and improve institutions dealing with it.”

In Spain, the deputy head of the opposition Socialists, Elena Valenciano, said that violence against women at the hands of their own partners was “one of the most serious problems facing civilisation in the 21st century.” While in power from 2005-9, Spain’s Socialists made massive efforts against domestic violence, setting up hotlines, special courts and introducing electronic tags in a programme copied in other European countries.–AFP