Lockdowns and restrictions have sparked a surge in domestic violence affecting women in particular. This ”shadow pandemic” occurs as the EU countries debate the adoption of the Istanbul Convention on combating gender-based violence.
Brussels (Brussels Morning) Today more than ever violence against women is a matter of global concern. Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, worldwide data showed that one-in-three women suffered physical or sexual violence mostly at the hands of an intimate partner.
After the pandemic began, data suggests there has been a general increase in violence against women and girls in many countries, especially a surge in domestic violence attributed to lockdowns and other restrictions. Dubbed “shadow pandemic” by the United Nations, the term has been widely adopted by media in reporting specifically on the phenomenon of domestic violence during isolation.
At the regional level in Europe, legal efforts to prevent violence against women led to the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, commonly referred to as the Istanbul Convention. It deals with the first universally-binding treaty that explicitly declares gender-based violence (GBV) to be illegal. It now represents the benchmark for international legislation in this field. The Istanbul Convention entered into force in 2014 and the EU ratified it in 2017 but has yet to apply it. Two Baltic states and four Eastern European states that have not ratified it, namely Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia.
MEPs mobilising for the Istanbul Convention’s ratification
On 15 October, 2020, MEP Milan Brglez (S&D) and MEP Fred Matić (S&D) sent a letter signed by 116 MEPs from almost all political groups to the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and the President of the European Council Charles Michel, urging that efforts for the ratification of the Istanbul Convention by Member States and the EU be stepped up. The signatories hoped full ratification would take place on the symbolic date of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women — 25 November, 2020.
Although accession is a priority set by the Commission in its Gender Equality Strategy 2021-2025, this commitment remains only of declaratory value. The MEPs’ letter makes clear that misinterpretations and misconceptions about the Convention actually prevent its full ratification by all Member States. According to MEP Milan Brglez (S&D), the reason full ratification has been slow is because of the rise in populist movements, right-wing movements and political parties especially, in the EU. They block the procedure in the EU’s Council of Ministers, but also spread misleading information about the aims and content of the Convention itself, he claims.
Some Member States still make a stand
Most misconceptions arise over the concept of “gender” that appears in the text, as well as the perceived threat some believe the Convention would pose to the value of the traditional family.
As Socialist MEP Alessandra Moretti states: “These narratives distort the aims of the Convention, making it a hostage to irrational fears and particular domestic political agendas. Unfortunately, often in recent years we witness populist messages that base their strength on a return to nationalist and traditionalist values that discriminate against forms of families other than those labeled ’traditional’. This represents a huge risk in defending women’s rights.”
Evidence of such misinterpretations is to be found in the countries that have not ratified the Convention. Bulgaria did not ratify the Convention because in 2018 the Constitutional Court ruled that the definition of gender therein was not compatible with domestic legislation. Slovakia also rejected ratification of the Convention in November 2019, despite the efforts made by both by the Council of Europe and the EU to dispel misunderstandings.
In May, 2020, Hungary refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention, challenging its definition of gender as “socially constructed”. The Fidesz party in the government of Viktor Orbán argued that all legal guarantees to protect women from domestic violence are already contained in Hungarian law. In addition to promoting alleged “destructive gender ideologies”, the Orbán regime believes the Convention would also simplify and accelerate immigration in Europe given the implicit obligation to accommodate refugees persecuted on grounds of sexual orientation or gender.
In August, 2020, Latvia’s Constitutional Court initiated a case with respect to the compliance of the Istanbul Convention with the Constitution, at the request of conservative parties. Arguments against ratification concern both the threat to traditional family values and issues around challenging the Latvian general public’s attitudes towards the concept of gender.
Poland and Turkey are considering withdrawing from the Convention, news that has sparked protests in both states. In Turkey, in particular, civil society groups stress the high level of gender-based violence in the country, an issue that has also drawn international attention.
Impact of ratification
Ratification of the Convention would enable the EU to speak with one voice against gender-based violence and to enforce mechanisms to protect victims and hold perpetrators accountable.
MEP Alessandra Moretti from the Socialists clarifies: “A country that has ratified the Istanbul Convention openly condemns all forms of violence against women and already has a system in place to prevent crime, protect victims and prosecute perpetrators”.
MEP Milan Brglez (S&D) observes: “The non-ratification prevents the European Parliament from taking part in the Convention’s control mechanism and exchange of information with Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO)”.
GREVIO is an independent body charged with overseeing the implementation of the Convention in the states that are parties to it by following up with the publication of reports and the formulation of general recommendations.
Complete ratification by all EU countries as well as the EU’s accession to the Convention would mark a historic moment that would give the Istanbul Convention the prominence it deserves.
This would be a welcome move at a time of crisis, when funds for women as victims of violence have been increased or, conversely, diverted in order to respond to the immediate relief efforts of COVID-19.