A European landmark treaty to end violence against women

The Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence is a major human rights treaty establishing comprehensive legal standards to ensure women’s right to be free from violence. Resulting from the Council of Europe’s continuous efforts since the 1990’s to prevent violence against women and domestic violence, this European legal instrument was negotiated by its 47 member states and adopted on 7 April 2011 by its Committee of Ministers. It is known as the Istanbul Convention after the city in which it opened for signature on 11 May 2011. Three years later, on 1 August 2014, it entered into force following its 10th ratification. Since then, all governments that have ratified this treaty are bound by its obligations.

To date, 34 member states of the Council of Europe have ratified the Istanbul Convention, and must adopt measures to fulfil their commitment to preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. In addition, 12 member states have signed it – along with the European Union. One of its first state parties, Turkey, notified its withdrawal from the convention in March 2021, which will take effect on 1 July 2021. Other member states of the Council of Europe are actively working towards ratification, and countries outside of the Council of Europe region have expressed their interest in joining, which is a possibility under the convention.

 


Recognising women’s experiences of gender-based violence

The Istanbul Convention recognises violence against women as a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination against women. It covers various forms of gender-based violence against women, which refers to violence directed against women because they are women or violence affecting them disproportionately. Gender-based violence against women differs from other types of violence in that the fact that these are perpetrated against a woman is both the cause and the result of unequal power relations between women and men that lead to women’s subordinate status in the public and private spheres which contributes to making violence against women acceptable.

Under the convention, the use of the term “gender” aims to acknowledge how harmful attitudes and perceptions about roles and behaviour expected of women in society play a role in perpetuating violence against women. Such terminology does not replace the biological definition of “sex”, nor those of “women” and “men”, but aims to stress how much inequalities, stereotypes and violence do not originate from biological differences, but from harmful preconceptions about women’s attributes or roles that limit their agency. Hence, the convention frames the eradication of violence against women and domestic violence in the advancement of equality between women and men. More information about the scope and the purposes of the Istanbul Convention can be found in the following leaflet:

 The Istanbul Convention: Questions and answers

 


A response to multiple forms of violence against women

The Istanbul Convention specifies several forms of gender-based violence against women that are to be criminalised (or, where applicable, otherwise sanctioned). These are:

  • psychological violence
  • stalking
  • physical violence
  • sexual violence (including rape)
  • forced marriage
  • female genital mutilation
  • forced abortion
  • forced sterilisation
  • sexual harassment

In addition, the Istanbul Convention sets out the obligation to ensure that culture, custom, religion, tradition or so-called “honour” are not regarded as justification for any of the acts of violence covered by its scope.

The Istanbul Convention also covers domestic violence, including all acts of physical, sexual, psychological or economic violence that occur within the family or domestic unit or between former or current spouses or partners, whether or not the perpetrator shares or has shared the same residence with the victim. Owing to the seriousness of such violence, it requires ensuring that the circumstances in which the offence was committed against a former or current spouse or partner, by a member of the family, a person cohabiting with the victim or a person having abused her or his authority, may entail a harsher sentence either as an aggravating circumstance or a constituent element of the offence. The convention asks states to ensure the safety and support of victims of domestic violence perpetrated by family members, spouses or intimate partners, regardless of their marital or non-marital status. The convention can, and must be applied irrespective of the legal definitions of “family” or “marriage” and recognition, or not, of same-sex relationships. These are matters for each state to decide since the legal recognition of same-sex unions or adoption by same-sex couple is outside the scope of the Istanbul Convention.

 


Four aims: Prevention, Protection, Prosecution and co-ordinated Policies

The Istanbul Convention is a major step towards a comprehensive and harmonised response to ensuring a life free of violence for all women and girls across and beyond Europe. Its obligations cover four areas of action, often called the four “Ps”. These are: preventing violence against women, protecting victims, prosecuting perpetrators, as well as implementing related comprehensive and co-ordinated policies. These four main objectives encompass various provisions, including legal and practical measures aimed to trigger concrete changes in national responses to violence against women and domestic violence. The below infographics explain what this means in detail.

Infographics and brochure on the on the four pillars of the Istanbul Convention: prevention, protection, prosecution and co-ordinated policies.

 


Safety and empowerment for all women and girls in all their diversity

The Istanbul Convention is based on a victim-centred approach. It promotes respect and equality for all women and girls who may be subject to violence by offering practical tools to ensure their safety and their empowerment. The principle of non-discrimination builds on legal obligations originating in other legal instruments, in particular the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 14 and Protocol No. 12) and its case law. Therefore, the protection and support provided under the Istanbul Convention must be available to any woman without discrimination, including with respect to her age, disability, marital status, association with a national minority, migrant or refugee status, gender identity or sexual orientation. For instance, a victim’s access to support services, shelters, protection and justice should not vary depending on her type of disability, her residence status, whether she was born a woman or whom she loves.

The non-discriminatory implementation of the Istanbul Convention is essential to ending violence against all women, since some groups of women face specific barriers and experience multiple discrimination in their access to protection and assistance. These include, for example, women with disabilities, women from national minorities, LBTI (Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex) women, women from rural areas, migrant women, asylum-seeking and refugee women, women without a residence permit, girl children, older women, homeless women, women in prostitution and women using psycho-active substances. It is crucial to ensure that measures to end gender-based violence extend systematically to these groups of women, are accessible to them and tailored to their specific needs.

 


A monitoring mechanism to identify trends and challenges

Once a government has ratified the Istanbul Convention, it must take measures to implement its provisions aimed to prevent and combat violence against women. A monitoring mechanism is in place to assess how these provisions are put into practice and to provide guidance to national authorities. It consists of two bodies:

The Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO):

GREVIO is a specialised independent body responsible for monitoring the implementation of the convention by the countries that have ratified it (parties to the convention), composed of 15 independent experts. It conducts national evaluation procedures that involve on-site visits, and publishes reports evaluating the legislative and other measures taken to comply with the requirements of the convention. To date, GREVIO has published baseline evaluation reports in relation to 17 countries, offering tailor-made guidance to increase the level of implementation. In addition, GREVIO may initiate inquiries in specific circumstances. GREVIO may also adopt general recommendations on themes and concepts of the convention, which it is currently doing for the first time. Work on developing its general recommendation dedicated to the digital dimension of violence against women is underway and set to conclude by the end of 2021. An overview of GREVIO’s activities is available in its general activity reports.

The Committee of the Parties:

This body is composed of the representatives of the national governments who joined the convention. Since 2018, the Committee has been adopting – on the basis of GREVIO’s baseline evaluation reports – recommendations concerning the measures to be taken to implement the conclusions, suggestions and proposals offered by GREVIO in relation to a specific country. These countries are given a period of three years to implement such recommendations and report back to the Committee. On that basis, the Committee will adopt conclusions on the implementation of its recommendations. The Committee may also examine the findings of any inquiry conducted by GREVIO members and may consider any necessary measures pursuant to these findings. To date, the Committee of the Parties has adopted recommendations in relation to 17 countries.

 


The Istanbul Convention in practice: driving change and creating momentum

The many evaluation procedures concluded by GREVIO to date have brought to light the tangible impact which the convention has had over the past decade. A key step taken in many countries was the introduction of new criminal offences, adapting their criminal law to the requirements of the convention. These efforts cover in particular the criminalisation of stalking, forced marriage and female genital mutilation. Moreover, some have amended their legislation to base their legal definition of sexual violence on the lack of consent freely given by the victim, in accordance with the Istanbul Convention.

In addition, many local, regional and national governments have expanded the range of support services available to women victims, for example, by creating national telephone helplines, increasing the number of shelters or introducing specialised services for victims of sexual violence. Many have also stepped up their efforts in raising awareness of the different forms of violence against women, and good practices have been identified as to how to reach women with disabilities or women and girls at risk of female genital mutilation. While challenges remain, there is strong recognition of the need to address, in a comprehensive and holistic manner, all forms of violence against women – beyond domestic violence. The findings by GREVIO also systematically stress the need to ensure the convention’s aims reach all women and girls, and this call is being heard. The Istanbul Convention is thus creating momentum for the expansion not only of legislation and support services to reach a wider range of women and girls at risk of gender-based violence, but is firmly establishing the notion that it is a state obligation to respond to all forms of violence against women and for women and girls in all their diversity.

Bringing to light the achievements and challenges in its implementation, the Istanbul Convention and its monitoring mechanism are proving to be key in guiding governments in building measures to efficiently respond to violence against women. Fulfilling the commitments taken under this convention is crucial for it to reach its full potential.

The Mid-term Horizontal Review of all 17 GREVIO baseline evaluation reports (available soon) offers more information on the promising practices and challenges in the implementation of the Istanbul Convention. An overview of some trends can already be found in GREVIO’s General Activity Reports.

 


The Istanbul Convention and the pandemic

Globally, the policies of isolation and confinement to reign in the Covid-19 pandemic have led to increased levels of domestic, sexual and other gender-based violence – and therefore to a heightened need of prevention and protection against this. Attention needs to be paid also to the longer-term effects of the pandemic on the balance between professional and personal life and on women’s mental load, economic independence, since it may force many of them, including women victims of gender-based violence, to make difficult choices such as leaving temporarily or permanently the workforce and to move to unpaid care work. The Committee of the Parties to the Istanbul Convention and the President of GREVIO called on state parties to uphold the implementation of the convention at all times, including during the Covid-19 pandemic. A special website on Women’s Rights and COVID 19 compiled by the Council of Europe offers information on action undertaken by the member states as well as initiatives by the Council of Europe as an institution and those of other international organisations and civil society. Information on national measures was collected following a call for submissions issued jointly by the Gender Equality Commission and the Committee of the Parties to the Istanbul Convention.