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The Istanbul Convention protects women, without hidden purposes

Opinion article
25/01/2018
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24 Hours, 25 January 2018

For many people, home means a refuge, a place where one can enjoy family life freely and safely, where love is a part of everyday life. But for victims of domestic violence, home means just the opposite. It is a place where torment and violence turn a refuge into a trap, hidden to the external world. Governments and civil society have the duty to address this problem and find solutions to it.

The vast majority of victims of domestic violence are women, who suffer from a lasting negative impact on their health. Studies carried out in Europe estimate that domestic violence accounts for almost 28 per cent of all intentional homicides and that 30 per cent of women over 14 years of age have experienced intimate partner violence. Actual figures are even higher, notably because victims tend to underreport cases of violence. Women can also be disproportionately victims of other forms of violence, such as rape or stalking.

Bulgaria is no exception. Despite the lack of precise data, studies estimate that around 25% of women in the country are victims of domestic violence. This is probably an underestimate, as many victims do not report the assaults. In addition, it does not represent the complexity of the problem. A victim of domestic violence, in fact, lives with or meets the perpetrator regularly, a situation which amplifies the psychological, emotional and social wounds that this type of violence causes. Children who witness such violence experience its lasting effects long after they reach adulthood.

Violence against women, in all its forms, constitutes a violation of human rights and requires concrete measures from the state not only to protect victims but also to prevent it by confronting the gender stereotypes and the ingrained patterns of inequality between women and men that lead to violence.

The bill proposing the ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (the Istanbul Convention), which is now before the Bulgarian Parliament, is a crucial step in the right direction. This ground-breaking Convention has been signed by all member states of the Council of Europe, except Azerbaijan and Russia, and has been already ratified by 28 states.

The success of the Istanbul Convention lies in the fact that it provides a victim-centered approach and a comprehensive set of measures, including a monitoring mechanism, designed to help states make women safer. These measures mainly concern preventing violence against women, protecting the victims and prosecuting the perpetrators.

Regrettably, several misconceptions about the Convention have been propagated in public debates in some countries. In Bulgaria some critics, including politicians, are opposing the ratification of the Convention using fallacious and uninformed claims.

Take for example the claim built around the word “gender”. Some pretend that the use of this word in the Convention has hidden purposes and effects. This is simply not true. The text of the Convention itself indicates that while the term “sex” refers to the biological characteristics that define humans as female and male, gender “shall mean the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a society considers appropriate for women and men.” This term is used there to define the phenomenon of “gender-based” violence against women, that is violence directed against them because they are women or that affects women disproportionately. It also serves to make the point that “gender stereotypes and roles” about women and men need to be tackled because they play a part in the perpetuation of violence against women. Any other consideration about the word “gender” in relation to this Convention is uninformed at best, and manipulative at worst.

Some critics may acknowledge that violence against women is a problem, but would like to avoid taking measures to combat gender stereotypes and roles as they see these as crucial elements of a “traditional family” where men and women play different roles. As a consequence, they consider that the Bulgarian state should refrain from adopting legal, political and education tools able to address violent male behavior and its source, which often lies in a culture of machismo and ingrained patterns of patriarchy that limit women to the stereotypical role of mothers rearing children at home. The critics go as far as to argue that the Convention would destroy families. In reality, the opposite is true. By targeting violence, the Istanbul Convention helps combat the main cause of family disintegration.

These myths must be debunked with an honest and well-informed public debate about the Istanbul Convention and the consequences of its ratification. This unique legal instrument is based on extensive research and expertise. It tackles violence against women comprehensively and in all its forms and sets out the necessary tools to prevent it, protect its victims and prosecute the perpetrators.

This is what the Convention is all about. A tool for states to increase the safety and liberty of its citizens. No excuse should obstruct its ratification.