Women’s Rights at the Crossroads: Strengthening International Co-operation to Close the Gap between Legal Frameworks and their Implementation Conference

Strasbourg , 

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Minister, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to welcome you here today.


As you all know, gender inequality is an age-old injustice.

But it is one that is very much in the spotlight today.

The issues surrounding discrimination are more openly discussed, more widely understood, and more often addressed by the governments and international organisations empowered to do so.

France is a case in point.

Minister, we have all seen the way in which the French Government has pressed for progress at the national level, through your presidency of the G7, and now in the priorities that you have set for your Chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers.

This is impressive and important.

As the Declaration from this month’s Paris G7 ministerial meeting on gender equality states:

“Gender equality is fundamental to the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights…at all levels and in all social, political and economic spheres” and that –

“Gender-based violence violates or impairs the enjoyment by women and girls of their human rights and fundamental freedoms and critically affects their dignity and integrity”.

It “must be eliminated”.

But this battle is far from won.

All too often, women still face sexism and discrimination and harassment and violence in their private and professional lives.

Yes, we are making progress, but we have not gone far enough.

And, crucially, where international agreements have been reached and legal frameworks have been agreed, implementation has often been slow to follow.

There are a number of reasons for this.

One of them is the backlash that has emerged to the prospect of change.

Measures that aim to bring about increased gender equality can give rise to fears, insecurities and misconceptions –

Today you will have the opportunity to exchange views on possible strategies for dealing with this backlash, which has emerged in a number of our member states.

Each national context is different, and any approach must of course adapt to different realities.

But across the board there is value in dialogue and exchange between all of those concerned, including authorities, religious institutions, and civil society.

The prize is to show that women’s rights create a better, fairer society for all:

That freedom for women does not come at the expense of men, but to their benefit too.

The Council of Europe encourages this when it comes to our own action – and we have taken a wide range of measures.

The European Convention on Human Rights is the centrepiece of the pan-European legal space we inhabit today.

Ratified by all 47 of our member states, Article 14 and Protocol 12 guarantee the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of sex.

And every European has an ultimate right of appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to ensure that their national authorities uphold them.

Added to this is the European Social Charter.

It outlines the social and economic rights of citizens whose member states have ratified it.

Among these rights, Article 20 provides for equality between men and women in education, work and family life – and including the right to equal pay.

We also have a wide-ranging Gender Equality Strategy.

This includes a specific onus on protecting the rights of migrant, refugee and asylum-seeking women and girls.

And it paved the way to a recent Committee of Ministers recommendation on preventing and combating sexism, providing the first international legal definition of that term.

But it is our Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence that has attracted most attention and controversy in recent years.

Let me be very clear, the Istanbul Convention matters.

Real equality between women and men cannot exist in the context of discrimination and violence.

This is true of all our societies.

Physical harm is not only an outrage in itself:

It also leaves psychological scars and maintains a cycle of intimidation and hurt.

Individuals cannot achieve their potential if they live under threat of violence.

So you are right to put a specific focus on that issue here today, and to consider explicitly the progress that has – and has not – been made by the Istanbul Convention.

Its aims are certainly right:

To protect people against gender-based violence – preventing it where possible and prosecuting those who do commit crimes.

And those crimes are also spelled out by the treaty.

They include harassment, psychological violence, and rape defined by non-consent rather than resistance.

34 of our member states have ratified the Istanbul Convention, the European Union has signed it, and the United Nations has referred to it as a “gold standard”.

This reflects the treaty’s status as the most advanced legally-binding international treaty on tackling gender violence.

And we are proud that its reach extends well beyond the borders of Europe, supporting women around the world.

Equally, we are saddened and frustrated by the reaction of some individuals, organisations and governments.

Many inaccurate things are being said about the intentions and the effect of the Istanbul Convention.

Some of them arising from genuine confusion, others as a consequence of political calculation.

This was made very clear to me in my meeting last November with NGOs from across our member states.

But whether these misrepresentations are by accident or design, they are wrong – and this must be understood.

We have produced a Question and Answer booklet that tackles the myths and sets the record straight.

It is aimed at national authorities, civil society, and beyond and is freely available on our website and throughout our member states.

But the case cannot be made from Strasbourg alone.

We rely on the hard work of people in this room and far beyond it, on the ground, and across Europe.

Because we will win the argument and make progress only by acting together – and there could hardly be a better cause.

Violence against women – all violence – must stop.

Today is therefore also an opportunity for those of us at the Council of Europe to hear from you how successful you think we are in this regard – and what more we might do.

With this in mind, I congratulate you Ms Simonovic for establishing and leading the Platform of independent international and regional women’s rights mechanisms.

This ensures that information, experience and insight are shared, and that participants can learn from one another.

By working in concert, you are improving your efficiency and effectiveness and avoiding duplication.

You are also putting in place the structures and expertise that will help overcome opposition and help implement the measures that ensure the rights of women in all our societies.

That is an admirable goal, which we all share here today, and I wish each and every one of you an insightful and successful conference.