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Ending violence against women in Europe

Stephanie Burnett
May 11, 2021

A group of European countries signed a treaty 10 years ago aimed at ending violence against women — and dozens more have joined. A decade on, what's been achieved since the signing of the Istanbul Convention?

woman in crowd
The Istanbul Convention has helped usher in reforms in European countries, such as to the legal definition of rape Image: Patricio Realpe/NurPhoto/picture alliance

The Council of Europe's landmark treaty was drawn up to end violence against women. It was the first of its kind that set out not only legally binding standards on punishing perpetrators — but also preventative measures and protection for survivors.

The Istanbul Convention, however, has recently been overshadowed by some government resistance, including from Turkey, which in March announced its withdrawal from the treaty that was named after its most famous city, where it was signed in 2011. Despite the reversal, progress has been made by many countries that still back the treaty. 

women protest in street Istanbul
The Turkish president's decision outraged many people in the countryImage: Emrah Gurel/AP Photo/picture alliance

What's been achieved?

Turkey excluded, 44 countries have signed the treaty. And one of the biggest achievements, say experts and activists, is that many countries changed their legal definition of rape to be more in line with the treaty, including Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Croatia and Greece. "The then-Greek government really recognized that the Istanbul Convention was where they wanted to take these domestic laws and bring them up to that standard," Anna Blus, a researcher at Amnesty International, told DW.

As it stands, most European countries do not define sex without consent as rape. Instead, many of these countries require violence, threats or intimidation — which means prosecutors often have to reduce the perpetrator's charge to the lesser crime of sexual abuse in the hope of getting a conviction.

Such loopholes can mean that a person who is unresponsive or silent during a rape can be interpreted as consensual in the eyes of the law — as seen in the so-called "Wolf Pack" gang rape case in Spain. (After global outrage, an appeal later saw the group guilty of rape).

protesters with hands up in Spain
Tens of thousands of outraged protesters took to Spain's streets in 2018 after five men who gangraped a woman were not initially charged with rapeImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/J. C. Lucas

Spain has since announced plans to change its laws to be more in line with the consent-based definition of rape. The Netherlands is also expected to do the same. 

The consent-based reforms were also propelled by the rise of the #MeToo movement, as demands for protections against sexual abuse and harassment grew. "Definitely, I think if there was no #MeToo movement, we would not be here," said Blus, referring to how several countries have reformed their laws since the movement began. 

Hillary Margolis, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, also noted that the treaty has helped enact laws that criminalized types of abuse not legally seen as crimes before; such as forced child marriage, female genital mutilation and stalking. "Stalking, I think, is a really new one — particularly now that countries are starting to actually incorporate that into law when it wasn't before," she said. 

Another gain is how some countries improved their services to reach domestic violence survivors. "Finland introduced, for example, the 24/7 helpline for victims of domestic violence," said Blus. "They really increased the number of shelters for people who have to flee these situations.

"So there was this kind of a recognition that we observed, with our section there as well, in terms of the authorities recognizing that it was the state's responsibility — and really taking some steps towards that."

Map indicating status of the Instanbul Convention in European countries

'North Star' treaty

The treaty stands out from most others, said Human Rights Watch's Margolis, because of how concrete it is by providing clear expectations, clear steps to achieve these expectations, and clear ways to monitor the steps. 

While the goal is to end violence against women and girls, advocates are under no illusions that the treaty would reach its full goal within a decade. 

"The convention itself in some ways is very aspirational. To achieve all of it would just be incredible — it's kind of a North Star in that it's guiding us and pushing governments forward. But I don't think anyone expected countries to have everything perfect by now."

Activists continue to urge countries to enact laws and services that help protect women and curb domestic violence.

"It's clear that every country has much room for improvement," Margolis said.

Women crying at funeral
The slaying of Ornella Pinto, who was stabbed 12 times allegedly by her former partner in Naples, has seen Italy face another reckoning on stopping violence against womenImage: Salvatore Laporta/IPA/Kontrolab/picture alliance

Why is there resistance to the treaty?

But some governments have joined Turkey in voicing opposition. Poland has also announced plans to quit the convention, a move that has appealed to many conservatives. But why? The treaty in recent years has been overshadowed by politicized misinformation that it binds governments into promoting gay marriage or other LGBT+ rights. Regardless of where a person stands on these issues, the treaty only addresses ending domestic violence and violence against women. 

"To suggest that this treaty, for example, promotes homosexual marriage — which is one of the items listed by [governments] — is simply not true," said Daniel Höltgen, the spokesperson for the Council of Europe's secretary-general, to DW in March. "The word 'gender' seems to irritate and lead to wild speculations [...] The treaty is not promoting anything else," he said, adding that there was "no other agenda" besides eliminating violence against women. 

Despite the setback, activists like Blus and Margolis hope that more countries will join the treaty — and that current governments that have ratified or signed the Istanbul Convention will continue to push for reforms. 

"The convention is about stopping violence against women and girls. Full stop. That's its only intention. It has no ideology behind it, it has no religion behind it, it has no political views behind it," said Margolis.

"It's purely about increasing protection for all women and girls, which is something we all want."