Europe must ratify the Istanbul Convention to fight violence against women

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July 31, 2014

Europe must ratify the Istanbul Convention to fight violence against women

Governments across Europe and the European Union (EU) must swiftly sign and ratify the Istanbul Convention, a new continent-wide tool to prevent and combat violence against women and girls as well as domestic violence, Amnesty International said as the treaty enters into force on 1 August.

“Beaten, raped, harassed or subjected to female genital mutilation, many women and girls in Europe suffer in silence as they are denied the means to extricate themselves from situations they view as hopeless. Europe must wake up to this reality,” said Michael Bochenek, Amnesty International’s Director of Law and Policy.

“The Istanbul Convention is a powerful tool to tackle comprehensively this extensive human rights abuse which blights the lives of millions of women on a daily basis in Europe. Governments across Europe and Central Asia must now show political will and put it into concrete action.”

The Convention, adopted in Istanbul by all 47 Council of Europe Member States on 11 May 2011, 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.

“Governments must empower women to take control of their lives. At the same time they must devise clear policies for providing them with redress, punish the perpetrators and prevent further abuse,” said Michael Bochenek.

The problem 

Physical, sexual and psychological violence against women is an extensive human rights abuse in all Council of Europe Member States.

According to a new EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) report, one in three women (33 per cent or 62 million women) across the 28 EU Member States has suffered physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15. These women are raped, mutilated, harassed, beaten or killed. Fifty-six per cent of Belgians know at least one person who has suffered serious sexual violence – a human rights violation that goes largely unreported due to prejudice and social stigma.

An estimated 500,000 women and girls in the EU alone have suffered from female genital mutilation (FGM), another form of violence suffered by women and girls, while an additional 180,000 are at risk each year. The largest numbers of women and girls originating from countries where FGM is practiced live in the UK, Italy, France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Sweden and Belgium. The illegal practice impacts on women’s health, well-being and ability to achieve their full potential.

“Protection requires governments to keep women and girls safe from violence. When preventive measures have failed and violent incidents have happened or are about to happen, it is important to provide victims and witnesses with protection and support so they can rebuild their lives,” said Michael Bochenek.

“Women and girls who have been targeted by violence beyond Europe also have the right to international protection, including in cases of people fleeing, for example, female genital mutilation or forced marriage.”

The solution 

Governments bound by the Convention will have to take a number of measures, including to: 

• Address gender stereotypes and promote changes in mentality and attitudes about the role of women and girls in society; 

• Train professionals to work with survivors or women at risk of violence and work closely with specialized NGOs; 

• Provide for both general and specialist support services which are appropriate and accessible for women and girls, including services for physical and psychological support, shelters, sexual violence referral centres and free 24/7 telephone helplines; 

• Develop a gender-sensitive asylum system - the obligation to protect includes the right to international protection. Women and girls who suffer from gender-based violence in third countries can seek protection in another state when their own fails to prevent persecution or to offer adequate protection and effective remedies.

“Ratifying and implementing the Istanbul Convention is not a question of granting special rights to women, it is about remedying existing injustices and preventing further violations of women’s human rights,” said Michael Bochenek.

To date, more than three-quarters (36 of 47) of the countries that are Council of Europe members have signed the Convention and 14 of them have also ratified it: Albania, Andorra, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Denmark, France, Italy, Malta, Montenegro, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, Sweden and Turkey. Within the coming months, a mechanism will be established to monitor the implementation of the Convention by Member States.

Amnesty International was instrumental in the process of drafting the Convention, by providing information based on the experience of NGOs in working with survivors of gender-based violence, as well as best practices, existing obligations under international human rights law and standards. This treaty is therefore a reflection of core international standards and the views of civil society.