Council of Europe ''Hearing on Refugee Women and the Istanbul Convention'', Parliamentary Network ''Women free from violence'' and UNHCR

Strasbourg , 

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Dear parliamentarians,
Dear Judge, dear Ms Djenabou Teliwel Diallo,
Ladies and gentlemen,

When women seek asylum in Council of Europe member states, they often do so for reasons closely linked to the very fact that they are women.

In too many countries women are denied an equal standing with men on fundamental legal matters. The police and judicial authorities may refuse to get involved in "domestic matters", which involve abuse, rape, torture or other severe harm. Women may also be forced to undergo certain traditional practices, such as female genital mutilation. They can be denied their human rights or are severely punished for transgressing fundamentally discriminatory social norms.

In our European societies we find all these circumstances deeply unfair and some outright hideous. But they are not necessarily grounds for persecution recognised by the UNHCR 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.

Some of our member states have therefore developed practices to fill this gap and grant subsidiary protection on humanitarian grounds. Other states adopt a very wide interpretation of persecution on the grounds of belonging to a social group and consider, for example, women fleeing female genital mutilation as belonging to a particular social group.

However, this is not the practice in all our member states, which is why the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence seeks to ensure that gender-based violence against women is recognised as a form of persecution within the meaning of the UNHCR 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, or such violence should give rise to subsidiary protection.

This approach should be indisputable since the very aim of the Istanbul Convention is to protect all women from gender-based violence.

Another essential element in the protection of women asylum seekers is keeping them safe throughout the application procedure. The Istanbul Convention requires governments to introduce practical safety measures for unaccompanied women asylum seekers including safe and separate dormitories to minimise risks such as sexual abuse. It also requires granting these women access to medical and psychological counselling and trauma care.

The Istanbul Convention has become widely recognised as an important and practical tool to combat all forms of violence against women. It offers an extremely comprehensive set of legally-binding standards aimed at preventing violence, protecting the victims and prosecuting the offenders, through comprehensive and integrated national policies.

This year will undoubtedly bring many more ratifications of the Istanbul Convention, but the momentum must be kept up. The work and the activities of the Parliamentary Network "Women free from violence" around the promotion of the Convention has been vital and I would like to invite you all to keep up the good work.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Co-operation between the Council of Europe and the UNHCR dates back to 1951. Currently, it focuses in particular on the protection and promotion of the rights of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally-displaced persons, and on the prevention and reduction of statelessness. The UNHCR Representation in Strasbourg, as well as the Council of Europe Office in Geneva, provides an important interface.

In a resolution adopted by consensus last December the UN General Assembly, whilst welcoming the increasingly close relations between the Council of Europe and the UN, also encouraged continuing co-operation between the Council of Europe and UNHCR.

Dear friends, let me conclude. A robustly gender-sensitive interpretation of the existing asylum grounds is required to address the widespread gender blindness in granting refugee status. Indeed gender can impact on the reasons behind the type of persecution or harm suffered.

This means that gender-sensitive procedures will have to be introduced into the determination process to enable all women asylum seekers to disclose facts related to horrific and traumatising acts, such as rape, female genital mutilation and other forms of gender-based violence.

As Parliamentarians, you are in a key position to give a voice to women in this situation, to shape the normative framework, and to remind governments of their obligations.
I count on your support.

Thank you.