Trigger warning: This guide will cover the topic of violence against women. Please feel free to skip this one if you are triggered by topics surrounding sexual violence, domestic violence, murder and rape.
What is the Istanbul Convention?
The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention, was signed in Istanbul in 2011.
It is the world’s most comprehensive legal framework to tackle violence against women. It contains 81 articles focused on the recognition and prevention of violence against women. To do so, it adopts a ‘victim-centred approach’ which prioritises the experiences and needs of violence survivors, and emphasises the importance of national anti-violence strategies and co-operation to tackle the issue.
The Convention’s aims can be summarised in four words: policy, prevention, protection and prosecution. It has its own monitoring body, GREVIO. Under the Convention, the state must be the one responsible for preventing violence against women, protecting survivors and sanctioning perpetrators. The state must also assume responsibility for promoting gender equality, ensuring survivors have access to adequate support services and that all concerned parties (such as the police and rape crisis centres) work together to help those who need it.
What is more, the Convention stresses the role of civil society. This includes but is not limited to charities, human rights organisations and voluntary work by members of the public. Civil society plays an important role in providing essential services to those who experience violence by raising awareness and helping to change attitudes to create a culture of zero tolerance.
Nevertheless, the Convention has also sparked some controversy. Far-right groups oppose its use of the word ‘gender’, claiming it invalidates biological sex and undermines traditional views of family, consisting of a husband, wife and children. EU institutions deny the Convention promotes gender ideology, emphasising its purpose of counteracting gender-based violence. Moreover, it affects neither ‘national civil law rules on marriage,’ nor recognises same-sex partnerships. Finally, the Convention’s provisions on domestic violence are applicable to both men and boys.
Why do we need it?
In 2014, a briefing for the European Union revealed that one in three women within the EU’s Member States had experienced physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15. Around one in five women had been abused by a current or previous partner and seven women were thought to have died due to domestic violence in the EU every day.
In the UK, this figure is one woman every three days. Over 70% of these women were murdered in their own homes, with the 2019/20 Crime Survey for England and Wales estimating that 1.6 million women experienced domestic violence that year, as well as 757,000 men.
These figures show there is an urgent need to protect everyone from such violence, making the signing, ratification and enforcement of the Istanbul Convention ever more pressing.
Who has adhered to the Convention?
There are three stages to adopting the Convention: signing, ratification (“to approve or sanction formally”) and entry into force. Some countries may have agreed to the terms of the treaty, but still need to update their national legislation. Others have expressed reservations, which has delayed the ratification and enforcement processes.
As of 2021, 34 Council of Europe members have ratified the treaty and 12 have signed it. Countries that have fully implemented it include France, Germany and Spain (although the first two expressed reservation towards some articles). The EU signed it in 2017 but is yet to ratify it.
Bulgaria and Hungary have signed the convention. However inn 2018, Bulgaria decided not to undergo the ratification process, due to a lack of political consensus. In 2020, Hungary rejected the treaty on the grounds of ‘destructive gender ideologies’ and ‘illegal migration’.
Turkey denounced (announced its exit from) the Convention in March 2021 by presidential decree. President Erdogan accused it of ‘normalising homosexuality.’ Consequently, Turkey’s withdrawal from the Convention took place in July 2021, despite numerous national protests and widespread criticism. Turkey does not criminalise same-sex relationships, but also offers no protection. In recent years, the government has targeted LGBTQ+ protesters. Activists argue that Erdogan’s withdrawal is unlawful, as the international law was ratified by Turkey’s government. Turkey is the first country to withdraw, but it may not be the last.
Poland announced its own intention to withdraw in 2020, with Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro objecting to the Convention’s requirement to teach school children about gender. Renowned women’s rights protester Marta Lempart told Reuters that the aim of withdrawal is ‘to legalise domestic violence’.
Where does the UK stand?
The UK signed the Convention in 2012 but never ratified it or put it into practice. The government claims it must bring national laws in line with it before ratification. In its fifth progress report monitoring the progress of implementation for the Istanbul Convention, the UK government provided an overview of relevant changes to national legislation, as well as efforts made in each devolved nation. According to the report, ‘the UK already complies with, or goes further than, almost all the Convention’s articles.’
Key legislative developments from 2020-2021 include the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, the Support for Migrant Victims Scheme and the Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Strategy.
The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 means the UK is now fully compliant with Article 44 of the Convention, which enables ratifying states to prosecute nationals who committed offences overseas.
The Support for Migrant Victims scheme, run by Hyperlink to Southall Black Sisters and partners, will provide £1.5 million over 12 months for ‘accommodation and wrap around support for migrant victims of domestic abuse with no recourse to public funds, as well as providing the data required to inform subsequent policy decisions.’
The VAWG Strategy will see the provision of up to £151 million for victim and witness support services between 2021-2022. The scheme will target various issues, including online abuse and sexual violence, with each devolved nation implementing its own action plan.
Over lockdown, the #YouAreNotAlone campaign raised awareness of domestic abuse, reaching around 33 million UK adults. The Ask for ANI (Action Needed Immediately) codeword scheme led to over half of UK pharmacies signing up to help domestic abuse survivors discreetly access support in their stores.
The UK government also anticipates changes to Northern Irish legislation by February 2022 to comply with criminalisation of psychological violence in Article 33 of the Convention. According to the BBC, this will be discussed within the next few months by the Northern Irish Assembly, which has just made coercive control (controlling, isolating and exploiting another person) a criminal offence. This should make the area fully compliant with the Convention’s legislation for devolved nations.
The Istanbul Convention is an essential piece of legislation in preventing violence against women and governments must continue to adhere to it.
For more resources on gender inequality, head to our dedicated Gender Issues & Feminism section.
Edited by Olena Strzelbicka
Researched by Larisa Cuturean