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Interview with Sophie Hansal - Austria


Sophie Hansal

Sophie Hansal (*1990) holds a BA in Media and Communication Studies, along with a MA in Sociology and Gender Studies from the University of Vienna. From 2011 to 2017, she worked as a project coordinator for the Österreichischer Frauenring (Austrian Women’s Lobby), an umbrella organization of women’s organizations and initiatives (https://frauenring.at). In this role, she served as Austria's deputy delegate to the European Women's Lobby (https://womenlobby.org).


From 2017 to 2020, Sophie worked for the Vienna Violence Protection Centre (www.gewaltschutzzentrum.at/wien), where she represented Austria at WAVE - Women Against Violence Europe (https://wave-network.org) and coordinated the "Allianz GewaltFREI leben" (www.gewaltfreileben.at), an alliance of over 50 NGOs monitoring the Istanbul Convention's implementation in Austria.


Before taking up her current role in 2022, Sophie led the training academy of the child protection centre "die möwe" (https://www.die-moewe.at/de/article/die-möwe-akademie). She is now the executive manager and coordinator of the "Netzwerk österreichischer Frauen- & Mädchenberatungsstellen" (Network of Austrian Counseling Centers for Women and Girls), the largest women’s rights NGO in Austria, comprising 63 member organizations (www.netzwerk-frauenberatung.at). Additionally, Sophie lectures in the field of Gender Studies at various Austrian universities.


Gender Equality in Austria

Women have made significant strides, yet many challenges persist. Although women hold political roles, men predominantly occupy decision-making positions. However, Austria is known for its extensive network of support facilities for women, and it's recognized as a role model for implementing anti-violence legislation and promoting awareness. They have established an intervention center for women forced into prostitution and trafficking.


Historically, the pay gap in Austria has been substantial, and in 2019, it was the widest in the European Union. Women often work in lower positions than men and earn less in professional fields. Furthermore, women typically engage in unpaid work, such as caring for children, the elderly, and managing the household. Over time, the wage gap widens as men continue to earn a salary, leading to challenges in retirement and widespread old-age poverty.


According to the commissioner of human rights in Austria, the country needs to reinforce women's sexual and reproductive health rights to ensure full equality. Additionally, all existing barriers to accessing these health services should be removed. A concerning number of women and girls continue to be victims of violence. Starting from the age of 15, 20% of Austrian women report surviving physical and/or sexual violence, 15% say they have been stalked, and 27% have been victims of domestic violence.



 

Interview with Sophie Hansal (7 February 2024)


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

What are the most common stereotypes about women in Austria?


Sophie Hansal

In recent decades, Austria has made significant strides in terms of equal rights and gender equality. However, like most countries worldwide, stereotypes still limit women and men's personal freedoms and life choices. One of the most persistent misconceptions is the notion that women are naturally more suited to caregiving, which often places the burden of care work on them.


This stereotype begins early in life, with children being given toys and responsibilities that reinforce traditional gender roles. It impacts who predominantly takes on caregiving work, raises children, manages the household, maintains friendships and relationships outside the family, and who takes parental leave.

These early influences can significantly restrict career opportunities later in life. Therefore, this stereotype can be considered one of the most pervasive and impactful.


Ella Fridrich

Do you have any plans to expand your advocacy beyond Austria?


Sophie Hansal

We are already part of international networks such as WAVE (Women against Violence in Europe) and maintain close contact with similar organizations. Our work primarily focuses on Austria as we represent Austrian member organizations. Given that the legal framework varies across European countries, it's sensible to have national representations. However, we do maintain connections with similar organizations in other countries. For instance, there's an organization in Germany akin to the Austrian network. One of my management colleagues previously worked for this German counterpart before joining us. I strongly believe that cross-border knowledge transfer is vital and it's already taking place.


Molly Corriere

How does the issue of violence against women in Europe differ from other parts of the world?


Sophie Hansal

That's a good question. I can't speak for all of Europe due to the diverse countries and legislations. However, one aspect that distinguishes Austria is its reputation as a best practice model for addressing violence against women. Without going into too much detail, Austria's legal framework for protection against violence is comprehensive and effective.


In essence, when a perpetrator is violent against a woman, the police can issue a 14-day restraining order. During this period, the perpetrator is not allowed to approach the victim. Importantly, each time such an order is issued, the victim's contact details are sent to a state-funded NGO, which then proactively reaches out to the victim.


This system doesn't cover all cases. However, it is a valuable system, with NGOs in every federal country of Austria offering both psychosocial counselling and free legal support in the event of court proceedings.


Despite our criticisms of the government, it's worth noting that having so many accessible NGOs is not common worldwide. Women affected by violence or facing difficult situations can freely access these services. For instance, all our counselling centers offer free services, ranging from basic counselling to group psychotherapy, and even assistance in court proceedings. This provides a wide range of free and accessible opportunities for women.


Christiauna Martin

As violence towards women continues to escalate in Europe, what are your hopes for those women trapped in such situations? How do you plan to reach out to them?


Sophie Hansal

Often, we overlook the courage and strength required to escape a violent relationship. Oftentimes this means severing ties with friends, potentially breaking up with family, and completely disrupting everyday life. In the media, not just in Austria but throughout the global north, victims are often depicted as passive and weak. However, this is far from the truth. It takes immense strength to make such a life-altering decision. I hope every woman in Austria realizes she doesn't have to endure this ordeal alone; there is always someone to support her. In the long term, I wish that we, as a society, could reach a point where everyone has the same rights and opportunities and can lead a life free from violence.


Gracie Wohiford

Given that as many as 27% of Austrian women have experienced domestic violence, how often do survivors seek help from counseling centers and are willing to discuss their experiences?


Sophie Hansal

In recent years, victims of gender-based violence have increasingly sought help from specialized NGOs, including our network's counseling centers. At present, over 23,000 victims seek assistance from violence protection centers. Regarding our network, we provide counseling to more than 120,000 women and girls nationwide each year. We believe that this large number is not due to increased violence, but also because victims are becoming more aware of available help and where to find it.


Nonetheless, there are still areas that need improvement, particularly in addressing psychological violence. Women often take a long time to speak up about enduring psychological violence. Often, they initially seek counseling for other issues, such as work or parental leave, and it's only during subsequent sessions that we discover they are victims of intimate partner violence.


Lilly Garcia

The CIVICUS website notes an unfortunate correlation between times of crisis and an increase in gender-based violence towards women. Based on your experience, why do you think this is the case?


Sophie Hansal

In times of crisis, we often seek simple answers to complex problems. This can lead us to rely on familiar, traditional, conservative views rather than exploring new solutions. This trend is evident not only in the US, but also across Europe, and there is concern it may occur in Austria as well. There is a shift towards far-right populism, and these ideologies are gaining popularity. These movements often provide straightforward answers to challenging issues, but they also tend to undermine the rights of women and other marginalized groups.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

Are women in Austria politically active? In your opinion, how significant is it for women to engage in politics?


Sophie Hansal

Yes, women are generally politically active, depending on your definition, and we have a robust civil society. However, it's unfortunate that very few women hold decision-making roles at the political level. In my opinion, it's crucial for women to be politically active as it provides an opportunity to shape the future of society as a whole.


Jessica Tran

What role does education play in the wage gap in Austria, characterized by an unequal distribution of women and men in lower or higher-level positions?


Sophie Hansal

Education plays a significant role, though perhaps differently than initially suggested. In Austria, women tend to have higher educational qualifications than men, suggesting a considerable education gap, likely over 10%. Despite this, they are substantially less likely to hold decision-making or management positions. Austria also has a significant gender pay gap compared to other European countries. This discrepancy likely stems from women performing substantially more unpaid work, often involving care tasks. The education system can address this by being sensitive to gender stereotypes, working against them, and questioning these biases. This approach could potentially lead to better outcomes for future generations.


Lilly Garcia

How vital do you think men's input and participation are in discussions about gender-based violence? How does it advance the movement and broaden its outreach?


Sophie Hansal

It's crucial for men to participate in this discussion. However, they should understand that it may not always be pleasant or easy. While we often discuss how many women are subjected to violence—you noted that around 27% of women in Austria endure violence at some point in their lives—we seldom address the number of men who are aggressive, violent, or perpetrators. Statistically, it's probable that we know men who have been abusive or violent towards women. This is where men need to take responsibility. It begins with criticizing derogatory comments made in their presence, or intervening when they witness violence against a woman. It may not be an easy path, but it's a critical one. I hope more men will raise their voices on this issue.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

Is it more important to enact legislation that protects women or legislation that promotes women's rights?


Sophie Hansal

My answer is both. As long as we live in a society that discriminates against women, we need protective jurisprudence. Once we achieve true equality, we won't need either.


Ella Fridrich

What advancements have occurred in Austria regarding women's rights? What is the most significant area for improvement in terms of women's rights in Austria?


Sophie Hansal

Despite considerable progress, we are still moving too slowly towards gender equality. According to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap report, it will take Austria over 130 years to attain full gender equality. This timeline is unacceptable. While we are making progress, it's frustrating to repeat what many colleagues have been advocating for years or even decades. On the bright side – if you want to see it as such –, we can reuse working papers from the 2000s, but the slow pace of change remains frustrating.


Grace Herbert

Are there any emerging trends or issues in the field of women's rights that you find particularly noteworthy?


Sophie Hansal

Discussing trends can be challenging, and one crucial point that often goes unnoticed is the need for a collective consideration of the struggles faced by various marginalized groups. This is particularly evident in the context of the climate crisis. This crisis

disproportionately affects women and socially marginalized individuals who are likely to experience its repercussions much sooner and more intensely. However, discussions on potential collaborations between the feminist movement and the movement for climate justice are infrequent. This also applies to the peace movement, and issues concerning the rights of migrants or refugees. It is imperative to consider these concerns collectively, despite the difficulty in doing so or the tendency to prioritize one issue over the other.


Ava Fridrich

What is your most significant piece of advice for women and girls who are dealing with discrimination?


Sophie Hansal

At the core of our work and our counseling centers is the principle that we never offer advice. Instead, we aim to provide new perspectives for the clients who seek our help. One key message I often repeat is that women and girls are not alone. Our society is structured in a way that often conceals discrimination, making it less obvious, even to those who are experiencing it.


The goal of our work and counsel is to help women and girls find individual solutions to their unique issues. However, it's also crucial for them to understand that these problems are often rooted in societal structures, and it's not their fault.


We frequently see women come to the counseling center feeling devastated and drained, believing it's because they don't fit into society or have done something wrong. I would like all women to know that they are not alone, and it's not their fault.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

Are the younger generations in your country adopting these ideas of gender equality, or are they rejecting them and trying to apply their own understanding in their lives?


Sophie Hansal

A notable observation from the recent elections is a growing gender gap. Young men are increasingly voting for right-wing parties, whereas young women are becoming more liberal. This trend is not exclusive to Austria, as it's also noticeable in the US. Specifically, in Austria, men under the age of 30 form the largest group voting for far-right parties, while young women generally opt for more liberal, leftist parties.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

This implies that while young men reject gender equality, women tend to vote for it among other issues.


Sophie Hansal

Yes, this is evident in studies suggesting that men are more likely to blame victims in cases of sexual assault. For instance, a significant gender gap exists, with around 30% of women and over 40% of men attributing fault to the victim. This issue needs to be addressed in education. Achieving gender equality may require men to relinquish some of their privileges. While this journey may not be easy, in the long run, men may also benefit from gender equality. However, this progress might involve men giving up certain privileges.


Gracie Wohiford

What challenges have you encountered in your advocacy work, and how did you tackle or overcome them?


Sophie Hansal

Advocacy work often involves voicing criticism, which may not always be well-received. People generally prefer good news over bad, yet advocates frequently deliver difficult messages. Furthermore, it can be challenging to continually reiterate demands that many colleagues have been making for years, even decades. While I'm not certain I've fully adapted, I would say that advocating for feminist issues has taught me patience.


Jessica Tran

I admire your work with the Network of Austrian Counseling Centers for Women and Girls, especially your support for one of Austria's vulnerable and often overlooked demographics. In your role at the umbrella organization, have you noticed any patterns or trends in the background of the women and girls seeking help? This could pertain to their socioeconomic class, age, ethnicity, etc. They may have sought help in various forms, such as therapy, legal assistance or representation, career guidance, protection from a violent partner, financial workshops, and more. (Of course, I understand if this information can't be shared due to privacy and ethical considerations!)


Sophie Hansal

No, there's no specific target group for the women’s and girls’ center. We genuinely mean that our counseling centers are open to all women and girls, which is reflected in our clientele. We see women from various socio-economic backgrounds, from affluent to impoverished. There’s no identifiable target group, likely because they're all impacted by the same patriarchal discriminatory structures. While the impact may differ, it's a common thread among all our clients. We hope that more women will utilize the counseling centers, helping to reduce the taboo surrounding them.


Ava Davis

How would you like to see the treatment of women in Austria change as a result of your efforts? Alternatively, have you observed any changes already?


Sophie Hansal

I'm uncertain if I will witness it during my lifetime, but I hope that our collective efforts across Austria will contribute to a future where everyone, regardless of gender identity, enjoys equal opportunities and rights. It's that simple. Furthermore, I hope people are aware they can seek support if they find this equality is not yet a reality.


Christiauna Martin

Your active advocacy for women is truly inspiring. At what age did you become interested in advocating for women vulnerable to violence, and what sparked this interest?


Sophie Hansal

A significant turning point in my life occurred when I attended a feminist media studies class at university, around the age of 18 or 19. The lecturer advised us that the course might affect our enjoyment of popular movies and blockbusters. Indeed, she was right. Shortly after this, I began to explore feminism and feminist theories on a theoretical level at university. Soon after, I started volunteering for a feminist NGO and participating in other feminist initiatives.


Grace Herbert

Could you provide an example of how your academic background has shaped your view on societal issues?


Sophie Hansal

My background in social sciences has provided me with an analytical framework to examine social inequalities. One of my key tasks is to find a balance between theory and practice, or to combine them. The knowledge I gained from my university studies has been invaluable in my daily work.


Molly Corriere

What is the most important takeaway or point to remember from this interview today?


Sophie Hansal

That's an excellent question. My aim is to provide you with an insight into Austria's situation, encouraging you to relate it to your lives in the US or wherever your future may be. We often forget that we live in a globalized society, where events, even in smaller countries like Austria, can impact the world.


For instance, when there's a shift towards right-wing parties in Europe, it should concern you, no matter where you live. This is especially true as right-wing extremism becomes increasingly popular, not just in Europe, but also in the US. Take Steve Bannon, who now holds talks for European right-wing extremists, teaching them how to gain government positions. This shows the close connection between what's happening in the US and Europe.


Therefore, it's crucial to consider the global situation and seek feminist responses at a global level, instead of limiting our views to regional or national scenarios.

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