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An international or European treaty is needed for the protection of women against violence

Strasbourg 07/01/2008
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Domestic violence still plagues European societies. In spite of all the international conferences and declarations, women continue to be battered in their own homes. It is apparent that it will take a long time before such ill-treatment is put to an end, but that is why it is even more necessary that further efforts are made now - by both central and local governments. That requires something more than mere political lip-service.

During my country visits I often discuss this issue with leading politicians, most of them men. Some have grasped its importance but others display an unfortunate complacency. They have argued that “there is no need to discuss this in our country”. Not only have they been dismissive about the problem as such; some of them have even volunteered chauvinistic jokes which should belong to the past.

Domestic violence is a problem in every country. Where there are shelters for women who must seek refuge, they have proven to be necessary to prevent worse tragedies. In recent months I have visited such homes in, for instance, Cork (Ireland), Vlora (Albania) and Graz (Austria) and have been convinced of their value. Residents, both past and present, have explained that the protection and care in these homes became a turning point in their lives.

Though such shelters are often run by engaged non-governmental groups, the authorities have a responsibility to assist and co-operate. Their activities must also be complemented with other protective and social measures – they should be seen as an emergency, temporary solution. Of course, they do not justify that the victim is the one who has to move from the home.

It is in many cases a very difficult step for a woman, sometimes accompanied by her children, to turn to a shelter. Hotlines and telephone help services do provide help and good advise. Health clinics are often the first among services to come into contact with the victims of violence. It is important that personnel there are well trained, gender sensitive and have clear referral systems in place to link to other support sectors. Health care providers should be able to refer the victim to temporary safe housing or counselling, and if need be, to the police.

After-care following the worst crisis period is essential to avoid the risk of repetition. There have been cases of women leaving the protected shelter only to be assaulted again. Decisions on whether or not to restrain the perpetrator are necessary. There should be legal measures in place to exclude offenders from the family home and prevent further harassment where necessary.

Another weak link in the protection chain has been the judicial proceedings in cases where a trial has become unavoidable. Women have been forced to confront their aggressor or rapist in the court room and pushed through cross examinations of the most traumatising nature. Too little has been done to avoid such abusive procedures.

Special attention has to be given to those women most at risk. Staff at the shelters have stressed the particular vulnerability of migrants. A migrant woman who is subjected to domestic violence is unlikely to report the incident to the police for fear of losing her residence status, if it is dependant on her husband’s status. Some countries have addressed this concern by allowing victims of domestic violence to apply for permanent residence status irrespective of their spouses support for the application. This is a responsible approach.

Sensitivity to the needs of the victims also calls for comprehensive and accessible services. The victim must be able to overcome all the various difficulties and consequences that violence has caused. Support services must take into account and respond to both the immediate and long term needs of the victim.

Intervention centres which combine comprehensive police, judicial, social and health support should be developed in order for victims to avoid having the burden of going from one institution to the next. This is being tried in Austria with positive results.

Services must be provided without prejudice. We know that some women in need avoid seeking assistance because they fear being stigmatised or blamed. Others have suffered years of abuse and lack the confidence to start a new life on their own.

There is a need for a broad policy framework for the reforms. What ought to be done is already known. Some governments have indeed already started to develop programmes which ought to inspire others:

• There should be a precise and strict legal framework providing a broad definition of violence against women;

• there should be legal provisions or guidelines to enforce the law;

• there should be a well thought-out strategy and an action plan covering both national and local levels which would include preventive and educational measures;

• there should be a programme for education of police, social workers, health workers, teachers and the judiciary which would include training on how to recognise and deal with violence against women;

• Support services should also provide facilities which contribute to rehabilitation and rebuilding of lives.

Such a framework could be enhanced by a comprehensive, international treaty on violence against women. A convention or a protocol with binding standards should of course include measures against domestic violence. The purpose would be to encourage national reforms and thereby also to contribute to the necessary changes in attitude.

The time has come to develop legally binding norms for the prevention, protection and prosecution of violence against women, including measures for the care of victims. A discussion should start on the most effective format of such a treaty, European or international. The aim is clear: zero tolerance.

Thomas Hammarberg