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A decade on, the Istanbul Convention has become more important than ever as a tool to protect women's lives in Europe, says Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe's High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration in Istanbul in March 2021 against Turkey's withdrawal from Istanbul Convention
On May 11, the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence turns 10. This anniversary comes at a troubled time for women in Europe.
In recent years, ultra-conservative movements have consistently attempted to undermine women's rights across Europe. The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the situation: Progress in gender equality in employment is being reversed, violence against women has skyrocketed, and obstacles in accessing sexual and reproductive health and rights have multiplied.
To reverse this situation, the Istanbul Convention represents a unique tool at the disposal of European countries. By establishing that violence against women is a human rights violation, it undermines any characterization of it as a private or family matter. Be it domestic violence, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, sexual harassment, psychological violence, stalking, forced sterilization or forced abortion, the Istanbul Convention puts positive obligations on states to counter all manifestations of violence against women in a comprehensive manner.
The Convention provides for a victim-centered approach designed to make women safer, by preventing violence, protecting victims and holding perpetrators accountable. Importantly, it also underscores that the effective prevention of violence against women requires states to improve gender equality, by tackling the deeply entrenched inequalities and stereotypes concerning the roles of women and men in society.
The implementation of the Istanbul Convention has already yielded positive outcomes. It has led to an increased number of shelters for victims of violence in Albania, Finland, Montenegro, Portugal and Turkey. Specialized support services for victims of sexual violence have also been set up in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Portugal, and recently Spain.
Some countries — including Austria, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Malta, Portugal, and Sweden — have amended their legislation on sexual violence and rape to bring it closer to the Istanbul Convention's standard, establishing that the lack of consent of the victim should be the constituent element of such offences, instead of the use of force or threats by the perpetrator. Additional forms of violence against women, such as stalking, have been criminalized in Albania, Portugaland Montenegro.
Implementing the Convention has also led to better training of law enforcement officials and the judiciary on gender-based violence, and more effective prosecution of violence against women.
While the pandemic has acted as a magnifying glass for preexisting gaps in policies to tackle violence against women, it has also highlighted the crucial role played by some of the measures taken so far to implement the Istanbul Convention. Several states, which had made the elimination of violence against women an important policy goal, were able in the context of lockdowns to prioritize actions to provide safety and support to victims of violence, for instance through new alert mechanisms.
Despite the demonstrated benefits of the Istanbul Convention for women's rights, misrepresentations continue nonetheless to be disseminated by those opposing the ratification of the Convention. Under the pretext of defending family values and traditions, they often hide a misogynist and homophobic agenda. To those opponents, it is worth repeating: It is not a treaty combating domestic violence that destroys families, but rather domestic violence itself.
Others argue that the ratification of an international instrument is not needed because countries already have national laws which provide sufficient protection against domestic violence. This argument was also used when Turkey withdrew from the Convention in a regrettable move in March. This fallacious argument conceals the fact that existing national laws are far less encompassing than the Istanbul Convention, both when it comes to the forms of violence against women such laws cover, and the measures that state parties to the Convention are required to adopt to implement it. Moreover, the Istanbul Convention provides for an independent group of international experts assessing its implementation by each party and an obligation of cooperation among all state parties.
Implementing the Istanbul Convention saves lives. States have a moral and legal duty to not fail women and girls. They must ratify and further implement the Istanbul Convention. There are no convincing arguments to not do so.