Preventing and responding to gender-based violence are needed more than ever around the world, and one tool can help countries maintain the framework to keep women safe.
Tuesday marks the 10th anniversary of the Council of Europe opening the Istanbul Convention. Introduced in 2011 in Istanbul, Turkey, the treaty was the first legally binding agreement to set standards for governments to prevent violence against all women and girls, support survivors, and hold perpetrators accountable.
An estimated 1 in 3 women has experienced intimate partner violence, non-parter sexual violence, or both at least once in their lifetime and the rate has likely increased in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As women’s rights activists look back on the progress gained from the Istanbul Convention, they are pushing more governments to ratify the agreement, and warn that gender-based violence remains a concern as countries withdraw from the treaty.
“Ten years is enough time to assess the positive impact that the Convention has had on the lives of many millions of women,” Janette Akhilgova, Russia and Caucasus consultant at the organization Equality Now, told Global Citizen via email.
"Good laws and policies in place mean that the problem of violence against women, and the responsibility for dealing with it, is brought to the state level,” she said. “However, this is not enough. Harmful gender stereotypes and lack of political will are the most serious obstructions preventing the effective implementation of the Convention.”
Today is the 10th anniversary of the @CoE's #IstanbulConvention, the most far-reaching international legal instrument to set binding obligations for countries regarding prevention & combating #VAWG. #IstanbulConventionSavesLives— equalitynow (@equalitynow) May 11, 2021
Learn more ⬇️⬇️⬇️https://t.co/CAoduw6U9d
Here are four things to know about the significance of the Istanbul Convention.
1. What does the Istanbul Convention do?
The Council of Europe ran a campaign to fight violence against women across Europe from 2006 to 2008 that revealed the disparity between how different countries managed gender-based violence. As a result, the Council of Europe set up the Ad Hoc Committee for Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence in 2008 and spent two years drafting a convention.
The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention, explicitly categorizes gender-based violence as a human rights violation and form of discrimination.
Psychological violence, sexual harassment, stalking, physical violence, sexual violence including rape, non-consensual acts of sexual nature, female genital mutilation, honor killings, forced abortion, and forced sterilization are all considered forms of violence against women in the convention. What’s more, the convention requires governments to ensure that law and policy protections include migrants, undocumented immigrants, and LGBTQ+ people.
Countries that ratify the convention are then responsible for making hotlines, shelters, medical services, counseling, and legal aid available to women. The Group of Experts on Action Against Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence monitors whether or not the convention is upheld in countries that have ratified.
Turkey became the first country to ratify the convention on March 12, 2012, and the human rights treaty became binding on April 22, 2014. The Istanbul Convention has been ratified in 16 Council of Europe member countries total: Albania, Andorra, Albania, Andorra, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Denmark, France, Italy, Malta, Montenegro, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, and Turkey. Another 22 countries have signed the convention but have yet to ratify it.
Any country in the world can sign on to the Convention even if they are not in Europe, and many have used the document as a guide on how to address gender-based violence, Equality Now’s Akhilgova explained.
2. Why is the Istanbul Convention important during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Violence against women, especially in the form of domestic violence, has increased worldwide. More women and girls are trapped at home with abusers due to lockdown orders, and services to help and support survivors and victims have been limited as health care systems are overwhelmed and respond to the virus. Some countries have seen calls to domestic violence helplines increase by up to five times, but the rate of violence is likely higher as most women who are subjected to violence often don’t report it.
“Alongside gaps in laws, domestic violence is often not viewed as a priority and victim-blaming remains commonplace,” Equality Now said in a statement released to Global Citizen. “Police and prosecutors sometimes fail to take cases seriously and inadequate responses from criminal justice systems can leave women with minimal protection. As a consequence, victims are less likely to report crimes committed against them, and offenders are left free to continue committing harm.”
Without the Istanbul Convention in place, countries are not expected to offer the minimum resources and protections to women and girls against gender-based violence.
3. Why have countries withdrawn from the Istanbul Convention?
Despite the known threats of the COVID-19 pandemic on women’s safety, several politically conservative governments have recently withdrawn from the Istanbul Convention.
Following public outcry over rising femicides in the country, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan withdrew from the convention in March. Erdoğan claims that the treaty threatens traditional family values and fears that it promotes same-sex marriage because it protects victims from discrimination regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“At a time when violence against women has spiraled during the pandemic, governments should be working to implement and strengthen policies to end violence against women, not rolling back on vital protections,” Equality Now’s Akhilgova said.
Meanwhile, the Polish parliament moved to withdraw from the treaty in April based on a belief that it does not respect religion.
Last year Hungary also backed out of the Istanbul Convention in May after joining in 2014 but never ratifying. The Hungarian government claimed that the treaty upheld “destructive gender ideologies” and promoted “illegal immigration.”
4. What progress has been made since the introduction of the Istanbul Convention?
Women and girls have benefited greatly from the safeguards provided by the Istanbul Convention.
“Higher legislative and policy standards have been introduced into national law in various countries that have ratified the treaty, resulting in greater protection and access to justice for women and girls who have experienced gender-based and sexual violence,” Akhilgova said.
The treaty has provided more training for legal professionals, law enforcement, and health professionals to address gender-based violence, she explained.
Women’s rights advocates are urging governments to continue to prioritize women and girls’ safety by carrying out the Istanbul Convention and following through with the decade-long promise.