Violence against women is a global phenomenon. In Russia, women can be beaten by their partners (with the permission of the law, if they do not leave a mark) once a year. Globally, women’s bodies are used as battlefields in wars, while in India, women face a rape epidemic, and in Argentina, women recently marched against femicide, to mention but a few examples.
According to a survey conducted in 2014 by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Violence against women: an EU-wide survey, one in three women aged over 15 has experienced physical and/or sexual violence, one in 10 women has experienced some form of sexual violence, and one in 20 women has been raped in the European Union.
Seeking to change this state of affairs and create a more egalitarian society, the Istanbul Convention, which recognises violence against women as a human rights violation, stands as a common tool to tackle a global problem.
It is the first European treaty to establish a wide range of legally binding obligations to address all forms of violence against women, including domestic violence, calling for the criminalisation of psychological violence, physical violence, sexual violence, female genital mutilation, forced marriage and forced sterilisation.
“The Convention has become a minimal standard, a solid base for state legislation and the development of good practice. Moreover, its importance lies in its symbolic meaning. It clearly states that equality between women and men is a key element in the prevention of violence against women and recognizes that women and girls are exposed to a higher risk of gender-based violence than men,” Tjaša Hrovat, counsellor, and Katja Zabukovec Kerin, president of the Slovenian Association for Nonviolent Communication (Društvo za nenasilno komunikacijo), tell Equal Times.
Iliana Balabanova-Stoicheva, vice president of the European Women’s Lobby, points out that “amongst the other very positive and strong measures to tackle violence against women and domestic violence, the Convention requires governments to ensure and provide regular training for specialists [police officers, social workers, psychologists, judges, lawyers, etc.]”.
Signatures and ratifications to date
Of the 47 countries that have signed the Convention, a total of 22 Council of Europe member states (14 of which are from the European Union) have ratified it to date. Another 14 signatories, members of the EU, are taking steps towards its ratification (Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Romania and Slovakia, as well as the United Kingdom), according to the Council.
In a resolution passed on 24 November 2016, the European Parliament urged EU member states to ratify the Convention without delay.
“In the European Union, 43 per cent of women have been the victims of psychological violence from their partners. But I do not think that is a matter of facts and figures. It is a matter of culture and education. Girls and boys must learn from an early age that violence is unacceptable. We need to make sure, within a few years, that this generation grows up with this new culture which considers violence against women to be unthinkable,” insists the Syriza MEP, from Greece, Konstantina Kouneva, who was attacked with acid on 23 December 2008 in Athens on account of her trade union work.
Negotiations are currently underway to ensure the Istanbul Convention is signed and ratified by the European Union itself, in addition to its individual member states. “It is a good thing for the EU to ratify the Istanbul Convention, but it is not enough. The European Union needs to develop its own legislative framework and it needs to put more of a budget and resources into combating violence against women. It is an issue so fundamental to equality and human rights that by not doing so it is actually failing half of the EU’s population,” warns Malin Björk, Swedish MEP from the Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left.
Slovenia, Ukraine and a global approach
Slovenia ratified the Istanbul Convention in February 2015, placing the state under an obligation to implement new measures.
“The Convention places the responsibility for preventing and stopping violence against women and girls on the state. The state, according to the Convention, has to take the necessary legislative and other measures required to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate, punish and provide reparation for acts of violence. The Convention also states that the provision of services should not depend on the victim’s willingness to press charges or testify against a perpetrator,” explains the president of the Slovenian Association for Nonviolent Communication.
The new measures being introduced include: the recognition of children as victims of domestic violence, including as witnesses of violence in the family, and the taking into account of their specific needs and rights; the setting up of round-the-clock telephone helplines free of charge, and appropriate, easily accessible rape crisis or sexual violence referral centres providing medical and forensic examination, trauma support and counselling; the establishment of prevention programmes, ongoing research to track the situation, and official bodies to implement, monitor and assess the measures taken.
The Istanbul Convention constitutes a major step forward for Ukraine in that it compensates for some of the flaws in the national legal framework for the protection of women against violence.
“Present Ukrainian domestic violence legislation does not have provisions on protection orders that would provide real protection for women victims of violence. It does not ensure the eviction of the perpetrator from (the couple’s) housing, and in some cases it is impossible,” points out Halyna Fedkovych, a lawyer at the NGO Women’s Perspectives Centre.
“Child witnesses of domestic violence are not recognized by the law [as such], they are not considered as victims of violence, and they are not eligible for social and other services as victims of domestic violence according to Ukraine’s present legislation. Violence against the mother, committed in the presence of children, is not taken into account when considering visitation and custody cases. The Istanbul Convention will improve the situation with the protection of child victims and witnesses of domestic violence,” says Fedkovych.
The Ukrainian parliament was supposed to ratify the Convention in November 2016. “But due to the comments and speeches of a few members of parliament, arguing that provisions on ‘gender’ are not appropriate for Ukraine and that the Convention and proposed amendments violate ‘traditional Ukrainian family values’ etc., ratification was blocked and postponed for further amendments,” Fedkovych recalls.
Experts point to the need for a borderless approach to the defence of women’s rights, as human rights.
“Victims of violence should have the same protection and support no matter where they are born or where they live. Moreover, international frameworks are important because migrations have become a common part of our lives. People move from state to state much more frequently, not only as migrants but also as refugees or, those with more luck, as tourists. It is essential, therefore, that the legislation protects the victims all around the globe. [It is crucial, for example, that protection orders be valid in different countries, not only in the country of residence],” concludes Zabukovec Kerin.