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Domestic violence – from facts to acts. How will the Istanbul Convention improve the situation?

Kyiv, Ukraine 25 November 2020
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Domestic violence – from facts to acts. How will the Istanbul Convention improve the situation?

Violence against women and domestic violence is a major violation of human rights, rooted in inequality between men and women and gender discrimination. The issue of violence against women is relevant to all countries and societies without exception. Domestic violence affects women and men, boys and girls. However, global statistics, as well as statistical data from different countries, including Ukraine, show that domestic violence affects disproportionally women. A 2019 OSCE-led survey on violence against women confirms the extent of the problem of violence against women in Ukraine. According to the research results:  

  • 67% of women claim to have experienced psychological, physical or sexual violence by their partner or another person since the age of 15. Most often, perpetrators are former partners.
  • Most women who experienced violence by their current or former partner or another person did not report the most serious incident of physical and/or sexual violence to the police.
  • 64% believe that violence against women is a common phenomenon, but 41% of surveyed women believe that if a husband is violent to a wife, the situation must be dealt with inside the family. In addition, almost every fifth woman believes that between cohabitating spouses or partners, sexual intercourse without consent is justified.

The already extensive problem of domestic violence has been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As some countries are again imposing lock downs and others continue special measures such as teleworking at home, it is important to remember that for many women the home can be the most dangerous place of all. This year people have spent significant amount of time at home, which also means that many women have had to spend great amount of time with their perpetrators.

First indicators show that many countries have reported significant increases in domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, during the lockdown France saw a 32 % jump in domestic violence reports in just over a week. The same is trend can be observed in Ukraine. According to the statistics of the National Hotline on Preventing Domestic Violence supported by the NGO "La Strada-Ukraine" only in the first month of quarantine, the number of calls from all over Ukraine has doubled*.

It is evident that during the past year tools to combat violence against women have become even more important. One effective tool for combating domestic violence is The Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, often called the Istanbul convention. Combating domestic violence requires a comprehensive approach and the Istanbul convention is a ground-breaking international treaty to tackle the problem of domestic violence in a coordinated way. The convention has four pillars:

  • Prevention
  • Protection
  • Prosecution
  • Integrated Policies

The aim of the first pillar is to prevent violence. This includes commitments to promoting changes in attitudes and behaviour that condone violence against women, training professionals working with victims in the prevention and detection of violence and developing treatment programmes for perpetrators.

The goal of the second pillar is to protect the victims of violence. The convention requires that states put the needs and safety of victims at the centre. This means among other things ensuring that survivors know where and how to get help, setting up specialised support services that provide medical assistance and psychological and legal counselling, providing shelters and 24/7 telephone helplines and establishing emergency barring orders to remove perpetrators from the family home, as well as restraint or protection orders.

The third pillar requires the perpetrators to be prosecuted, bringing justice to the victims and ending impunity. This means that states are required to ensure perpetrators are appropriately punished, ensure that culture, religion, tradition or other personal reasons are not accepted as a defence for criminal behaviour and that law-enforcement agencies respond immediately to calls for assistance, manage dangerous situations adequately and swiftly investigate all allegations of violence against women.

Fourthly, violence against women and domestic violence cannot effectively be tackled by uncoordinated and disorganized responses. Eradicating domestic violence requires concerted efforts by a variety of actors, including the police, judiciary, social services, child protection agencies, health care professionals, women’s organisations and other relevant partners.

The Istanbul convention also includes a monitoring mechanism, which strengthens the implementation of the provisions of the treaty. The monitoring mechanism assesses how well the provisions are put into practice. The findings and recommendations of the monitoring reports help ensure states’ compliance with the convention and guarantee its long-term effectiveness.

How Ukraine combats domestic violence?

Ukraine passed a law criminalising domestic violence in 2017. The law brought about several improvements in combating domestic violence. In addition to criminalisation, the law improved provision of services to the victims, a special police unit has been designated to deal with domestic abuse cases, police can also issue protection orders and immediately distance a perpetrator from a victim. Also, a special registry of domestic violence cases has been set up for the exclusive use by the designated law enforcement and social security authorities to help them be more holistically informed in building a response.

The Council of Europe significantly contributes to reinforcing Ukrainian efforts in prevention and combating violence against women, as well as supporting the Istanbul convention ratification process. Ukraine first came close to ratification in 2016, but it was rejected in the Ukrainian Parliament by a majority. The reason was claimed to be the text of the convention, with its reference to sexual orientation and gender, which was perceived to contradict Ukrainian traditions and Christian values. This is a clear and serious misunderstanding of the convention, which purpose is to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence. The overview of the ratification process shows that despite the clearly stated aims of the convention, as well as the seriousness of the phenomenon and its impact on victims and on society, despite a significant contribution of the Council of Europe to support the convention ratification process, a number of groups have in recent years been spreading false narratives about the convention. It must be made clear that the purpose of the Istanbul Convention is in the official name of the convention: preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. This is the sole goal of the convention.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that more needs to be done also in Ukraine. A study by UN Women on COVID-19 and domestic violence services highlights that women and girls may have more difficulties in promptly reporting violence and obtaining essential police and justice services, either physically, or through helplines, as they live 24/7 with their abusers and have no privacy to make such phone calls. Protection orders may not be enforced during this time, contributing to impunity, while violence against women increases. A new study by the Council of Europe on issuing restraining or protection orders in cases of domestic violence in Ukraine shows that 88% of the applicants for a restraining order are female.

There are indications that in Ukraine the police statistics of the COVID-19 period on domestic violence are not reflecting the extent of the problem. The NGOs have seen increase to the domestic violence hotlines, but this is not reported by the police. Obtaining emergency protection orders is difficult and there seems to be lack of trust to the polices in the matter of domestic violence. According to a recent study "The impact of COVID-19 on women's rights in Ukraine" by Ukrainian Women Lawyers Association “JurFem”, during strict quarantine restrictions, the police reduced the issuance of emergency barring orders by 5% according to the number of appeals. The number of court decisions on the issuance of restraining orders decreased as much as 38% compared to the beginning of the year. Forced lockdown with perpetrators, lack of specialized shelters, and difficulties with access to legal aid and social services are among the major challenges faced by victims, composed of 85% of women and 1.2% of children. As these studies show, more needs to be done.

And in doing more, the Istanbul Convention is a central tool. In emergency situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the second and fourth pillar are important. Ensuring adequate measures to protect women and children is an essential element during situations when people are locked into their homes and when economic worries, health and security concerns trouble people. For protection measures to be effective, they need to be coordinated and comprehensive. Ratification of the Istanbul convention offers Ukraine also other benefits. A systematic approach to preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence enhanced with a monitoring system would ensure that also Ukraine is doing its utmost in our common fight against violence against women and domestic violence. Thus, it is of highest importance that Ukraine would ratify the Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

*Statistics of calls about domestic violence, NGO La Strada-Ukraine (January-June 2020).

More information

Council of Europe:

https://www.coe.int/en/web/genderequality/violence-against-women

https://www.coe.int/en/web/genderequality/the-istanbul-convention-a-tool-to-advance-in-fighting-violence-against-women-and-domestic-violence-in-ukraine

https://rm.coe.int/ukr-restraining-protection-orders-dv-report-ukraine/1680a03399?fbclid=IwAR01Dh3s93A4x5pR3JhSZYkZbcv8x94ztnlZlNk5m8a4WTr86tChaebf7vg

References

EIGE: COVID-19 and gender equality: gender-based violence, https://eige.europa.eu/covid-19-and-gender-equality/gender-based-violence

JurFem: ВПЛИВ COVID-19 НА ПРАВА ЖІНОК В УКРАЇНІ, http://jurfem.com.ua/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/%D0%92%D0%9F%D0%9B%D0%98%D0%92-%D0%9A%D0%9E%D0%92%D0%86%D0%94-19-%D0%9D%D0%90-%D0%9F%D0%A0%D0%90%D0%92%D0%90-%D0%96%D0%86%D0%9D%D0%9E%D0%9A-%D0%92-%D0%A3%D0%9A%D0%A0%D0%90%D0%87%D0%9D%D0%86.pdf

Kateryna Busol: Domestic Violence in Ukraine: Lessons from COVID-19, https://www.chathamhouse.org/2020/07/domestic-violence-ukraine-lessons-covid-19?CMP=share_btn_em

OSCE: OSCE-led Survey on the Well-being and Safety of Women, https://www.osce.org/projects/survey-on-the-well-being-and-safety-of-women

UN Women: COVID-19 and Essential Services Provision for Survivors of Violence Against Women and Girls, https://www.un-ilibrary.org/public-health/covid-19-and-essential-services-provision-for-survivors-of-violence-against-women-and-girls_e8db3f66-en

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