Summary of the main discussions

5th regional seminar on Support and protection for victims of domestic violence: Services needed, Espoo, 8-9 October 2007


Background to the seminar 

During the Third Summit of the Council of Europe in May 2005, the Heads of State and Government of the Council of Europe member states reaffirmed their commitment to eradicating violence against women, including domestic violence. In adopting an Action Plan envisaging the launch of a Campaign to Combat Violence against Women, including Domestic Violence, and the institution of a Task Force on the same topic, they defined future activities by the Council of Europe in this field.

The Task Force, consisting of a group of eight international experts in the field of preventing and combating violence against women, developed the Blueprint for the Campaign. This document serves as a roadmap for the implementation of the Campaign and was approved by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. It contains a definition of violence against women, as well as aims, objectives, messages and activities to implement the Campaign.

Following the approval of the Campaign Blueprint by the Committee of Ministers, the Campaign was launched at a high-level conference on 27 November 2006 in Madrid. The Campaign incorporates three closely linked dimensions: governmental, parliamentary and local/regional. It is carried out by the Council of Europe as well as its member states, in partnership with international intergovernmental organisations and NGOs involved in the protection of women against violence.

The Campaign will end with a closing conference to be held in June 2008. On this occasion, the Council of Europe Task Force to Combat Violence against Women, including Domestic Violence, will present its conclusions and assessment of measures and actions taken at national level to combat violence against women, including domestic violence as well as its recommendations to the Council of Europe for future action in this field.

The intergovernmental Campaign activities carried out by the Council of Europe include five regional seminars - in co-operation with the requesting member state - devoted to one of the Campaign objectives as laid out in the Campaign Blueprint.

The Seminar on Support and protection for victims of domestic violence: Services needed was the fifth such seminar. It was held on 8-9 October 2007 in Espoo, Finland.

Around 100 government and NGO representatives from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Latvia, Lithuania, the Russian Federation and Sweden gathered in Espoo to share information on and discuss the support services for women victims of domestic violence.

Keynote speeches and presentations on national experiences focused on the organisation of and preconditions for providing support services. In addition, a large part of the seminar was devoted to the types of support services currently provided by the member states as well as identifying areas for further action in this field.

State obligation to combat violence against women 

The first keynote speech focused on the role of the existing international legal framework to combat violence against women, namely on the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The CEDAW Convention, its Optional Protocol and the work of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee), are universally regarded as a key international instrument for the protection of women’s human rights. All Council of Europe member states are parties to the CEDAW Convention and 41 out of 47 member states have ratified its Optional Protocol.

Even though the CEDAW Convention covers both direct and indirect forms of discrimination against women in article 1 of the Convention, violence against women is not explicitly mentioned in its definition. In order to clarify that it nonetheless applies to violence against women, the CEDAW Committee adopted in 1992 a General Recommendation No. 19 affirming gender-based violence as a form of discrimination that seriously inhibits women’s ability to enjoy rights and freedoms on a basis of equality with men.

The CEDAW Convention imposes far reaching obligations to prevent acts of violence against women. It does not only oblige state parties to take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women by any person, organisation or enterprise, but the General Recommendation No. 19 also considers states as responsible for private acts if they fail to act with due diligence to prevent violations of rights or to investigate or punish acts of violence, and for providing compensation. Consequently, the CEDAW Committee has established that the full implementation of the Convention requires state parties to take positive measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women, including domestic violence.

Furthermore, state parties are obliged to report to the CEDAW Committee on its implementation. Based on these governments reports, the Committee delivers detailed recommendations to enhance the implementation of the Convention. With regard to combating violence against women, the Committee has, in its concluding comments to the governments, focused attention on the comprehensive approach to address all forms of violence against women. This comprehensive approach would include measures such as adopting specific legislation addressing various forms of violence against women, policy measures, national action plans, services for victims, awareness-raising as well as capacity-building efforts for public officials and the general public.

The CEDAW Committee has also expressed its concern about the insufficient distribution of support measures for victims of domestic violence, such as shelters, legal, medical and psychological support. In addition, it has shown concern about the inadequacy of financing and monitoring of programmes providing services for women victims of violence.

It was underlined that the CEDAW Convention provides an important international legal framework that establishes an obligation of state parties to combat violence against women. Therefore, it is important to use this international instrument at European and national level to ensure the implementation of effective protective measures and services in line with the obligation under the CEDAW Convention. It should also be recalled that the Council of Europe Recommendation Rec (2002)5 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on the protection of women against violence recognises that states have an obligation to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and punish acts of violence, whether those asct are perpetrated by the states or private persons, and provide protection to victims.

Organisation of services for women victims of violence: structures, resources and political support 

Various support services and service structures have been introduced during recent years in the Council of Europe member states. However, the level of commitment and the ways governments have responded to their responsibility of setting up co-ordinated services for victims varies to great extent. While some countries have recently set up permanent structures at national, regional and local level in order to co-ordinate services for victims of violence as well as to ensure co-operation between authorities and service providers, others still struggle to provide basic services for women victims of gender-based violence.

In their discussions, the participants identified certain key elements which should be considered as starting points in developing an effective service sector for victims of violence. Any organisation of the service sector should consider agreeing on a common understanding of violence against women as well as adopting and implementing national action plans to combat violence against women a first step in its activities. Secondly, training of professionals and authorities at all levels involved in combating violence as well as developing guidelines and handbooks for handling cases on violence against women should be applied. The collection of gender-disaggregated data and sharing this data among service providers and authorities were also considered equally important in the organisation of the service sector. Furthermore, it was pointed out that the continuity of victim services should be ensured by long-term funding by the governments.

Adequate geographical distribution of services remains an obstacle in many of the Council of Europe member states. While most women victims are able to receive at least basic support services in the urban areas and big cities, victims living in the remote and scarcely populated areas are not provided adequate support, if any. Some countries, such as Norway and Finland, have made efforts to extend the service structure throughout the country by setting up co-ordinators or resource centres on violence against women at regional and/or municipal level.

The participants shared the view that any service structure for victims of violence should be based on multi-agency co-operation between authorities, service providers and non-governmental organisations. In most member states, authorities and service providers apply certain co-operation procedures and practices. However, a comprehensive structural approach to multi-agency co-operation involving national, regional and local levels is yet to be tested. The keynote speaker on this topic stressed that successful multi-agency co-operation requires commitment and networking skills from all professional groups dealing with violence against women. Sometimes professionals and authorities lack authorisation to exchange information and to co-operate with other professionals. Therefore, introducing a legal basis or procedures and regulations for institutions to co-operate across professional fields is highly recommended.

Identifying special needs of victims of domestic violence 

Service providers usually define violence against women as a continuum of coercive behaviour and control which gives us the opportunity to look beyond physical signs of violence and identify a possible victim of violence at an early stage. It is also important to understand that the recovery continues long after the final marks of physical injuries have disappeared.

Reviews demonstrate that women are likely to get killed by their partner or former partner when high levels of controlling behaviour existed during the relationship. Therefore, it is important that any risk assessment aiming to protect victims is based on understanding the complexity of the abusive relationship, which does not only include physical and sexual abuse but also coercion, control and intimidation.

It is only by carefully analysing the individual situation of the victim, taking into consideration the cycle of violence and controlling behaviour, that we can begin to see how to respond adequately to the needs of women victims.

Due to the devastating affects of violence, recovery takes a long time. It needs to be facilitated by immediate support services (shelter, psychological and medical assistance) as well as long-term services aimed to assist and support women through the criminal or civil justice proceedings and in building a new life without violence. From the point of view of the service sector, it is more useful to consider violence as a process instead of a chain of individual events.

Violence concerns women of all ages, different ethnic background and economic and social status in society. However, services should be adjusted to meet different needs of different victims in varying life situations. This claim is backed by studies, which have identified that certain groups such as young women, women with disabilities and women from recently settled communities (such as ethnic communities) run a bigger risk of becoming victims of violence.

Women victims usually hesitate to seek help from public authorities for their suffering, but when they do, they often turn to social services, health services or the police. Social services are often involved in identifying cases of domestic violence, as they often come into contact with socially vulnerable groups with specific needs. It is therefore essential that the expertise of public authorities is improved to better respond to the needs of victims of violence.

Sexual violence as a form of intimate partner violence has not received sufficient attention in the discussions on domestic violence, although sexual violence and sexualisation of violence has serious traumatic repercussions on the victim’s self-esteem and sexual life even years after the traumatic experience. It is of utmost importance that service providers consider rape and sexual abuse by an intimate partner as equally traumatic to rape by an unknown person.

To respond to the special needs of victims of sexual violence, help lines and rape crisis centres have been developed for that purpose. In some member states, crisis services are situated in the hospitals in order to provide medical examinations in order to gather evidence for the criminal proceedings.

Building an effective service sector: prospects and challenges  

During the last session of the Seminar, governmental representatives were asked to identify one or two most important measures which they would like to see tackled in an appropriate way in the near future. Participants considered it difficult to identify one or two single measures which supersede others as they pointed out that one measure alone is not enough to enhance the overall situation in this field.

Of the eight participating member states, Estonia, Finland and Lithuania emphasised the urgent need to setting up more shelters as well as improving their geographical distribution. Norway, Latvia and the Russian Federation, on the other hand, shared a concern for effective co-operation between state agencies, authorities and other service providers. Adequate financing of services as well as sharing good practices and guidelines among professionals were also considered important in this field.

Denmark suggested the mainstreaming of victim services in the general service provision as a means to ensure that all agencies would be better equipped to help victims and identify violence at an early stage. Latvia, together with the Russian Federation, pointed out that further improvements are also needed in the area of legislation and action plans to combat violence against women. Iceland stressed the need to allocate more resources to basic and specialised training of professionals and to develop professional training material.

To sum up, the participants underlined the need for pursuing a two-fold strategy for developing an effective service sector. While the knowledge base of all public services and institutions in handling cases of domestic violence should be broadened, the sector providing specialised services for victims should also be strengthened. Both approaches were seen equally important to arrive at durable solutions in protecting victims and preventing violence.