Istanbul Convention renews fight to end violence against women


A month ago, on 1 August 2014, the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, better known as the Istanbul Convention, entered into force.

According to women’s rights NGOs, this new instrument, already ratified by 11 countries, will not change the situation overnight but nonetheless represents a historic opportunity to put an end to a widespread problem.

The latest survey by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) indicates that 62 million women, or one in three in the whole European Union, have already suffered physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime.

According to the human rights organisation Amnesty International, the Istanbul Convention “is the first European treaty specifically targeting violence against women and domestic violence. It sets out minimum standards on prevention, protection, prosecution and the development of integrated policies. Countries ratifying the treaty are obligated to protect and support victims of such violence. They must also establish services such as hotlines, shelters, medical services, counselling and legal aid.”

The Istanbul Convention is even more important for migrant women, for whom violence is a double threat. Not only are they often more exposed than other groups of women to exploitation and physical violence, but they are also frequently blackmailed: if they denounce the violence perpetrators to the police, they face the risk of having their staying permit revoked and becoming irregular migrants.

In its report “Strategies to End Double Violence Against Undocumented Women - Protecting Rights and Ensuring Justice”, the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) refers to a survey conducted by the UK-based migrant women’s organisation IMKAAN, which found that out of 183 women with an insecure migration status seeking support for violence, 92 per cent reported threats of deportation from the perpetrator.

Another 2010 survey by the French NGO “La Cimade” shows that 38 per cent of Parisian police stations would arrest undocumented women reporting violence, and that 5 per cent of those who went to the police to report cases of violence couldn’t even lodge a complaint.

PICUM’s report also gives voice to several migrant women who testified about the violence they faced. For example, a thirty-year-old Afghan woman living in Sweden reported being sexually abused by her brother. After escaping from him, she was then raped and forced to abort by a fellow Afghan who had offered her protection. Both men blackmailed her, saying she would be deported if she called the police.

She also complained about the inactivity of the organisations that are supposed to protect migrant women against violence: “I’ve called many women’s rights organisations. I’ve even called the office of the Swedish King to describe my case. But just like in Afghanistan, they don’t listen to women’s problems. Many organisations told me they couldn’t help me because I have no paper. But that is precisely why I need their help.”


Better protection for migrant women

“Migrant women face language barriers, discrimination, secondary victimisation, and are denied access to life-saving services such as women shelters due to their status” Barbara Stelmaszek, Project Coordinator at the European network Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE), told Equal Times.

But this could soon change under the Istanbul Convention.

“Article 4.3 of the Istanbul Convention calls for its implementation to be secured without discrimination on any ground, including migrant or refugee status or national or social origin”, Stelmaszek says.

“The Convention also compels Member States to ensure adequate specialised services such as shelters. It further explains that women’s organisations are best suited to provide such services. Their independence makes them more approachable for the victims.”

“Women’s human right to live a life free from violence should have no status attached. It is an indivisible right and the non-discrimination clause of the Convention relays this very clearly.”

Lara Natale of the European Network of Migrant Women further explains to Equal Times that “Policies governing entry, employment and residence frequently disadvantage migrant women and increase their risk of abuse. To address this, Article 59 of the Convention requires state parties to provide an autonomous permit to victims whose status is dependent on a violent partner or spouse.”

“Violence against women will only end in Europe when all women have access to justice,” declared Michele LeVoy of PICUM. “To do this, authorities must ensure a firewall to completely distinguish access to justice, support services, and shelters from immigration rules enforcement.”

According to campaigners for migrant women’s rights, it is now of the utmost importance that the Member States of the Council of Europe, as well as the European Union, soon ratify the Istanbul Convention and that its provisions are swiftly transposed into national and European legislation.