Janey Stephenson asks what the Istanbul Convention can do to end violence against women
Janey is a feminist activist and filmmaker who is passionate about human rights and ending violence against women. She tweets @vegetarianjelly.
Not many people have heard of the Istanbul Convention. This is unsurprising; like a lot of international law it sounds a bit dry. But it has the power to end violence against women in the UK, which is why a group of campaigners are trying to pull it into the spotlight.
The Istanbul Convention’s full name is the ‘Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence’ and it does exactly what it says on the tin: provides a strategic framework for governments to end violence against women.
It’s the first human rights treaty ever to comprehensively focus on gender-based violence. It builds on the United Nations’ CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women) by providing detailed definitions for different forms of violence against women that can be introduced into national criminal law.
What does it mean for women in the UK?
Safety, justice and the chance to live a life free from the threat of violence. The convention spells out exactly what states need to do to address all forms of violence against women; from domestic, sexual and honour-based violence to sexual harassment, stalking, FGM, forced marriage and forced sterilisation.
If the government ratified this convention, they would have to put specific measures in place to tackle violence against women: from prevention through to protection and prosecution. They would have to provide helplines, provide refuges, access to legal aid and specialist support services. They would have to grant migrant women autonomous residence permits, allowing them to escape abusive relationships. They would not be able to get away with cutting funding for life-saving refuges in the way the last government has done.
But wait, what’s ratification? It’s when a state commits to embed an international convention into their national laws. When a government ratifies a convention, they are legally bound to follow it by embedding new laws and policies.
If the UK ratified the Istanbul Convention, they would be committed to systematic change. This is much more than a politician’s promise: it’s a legal commitment. Governments would no longer be able to conveniently ignore the huge levels of violence against women that have historically been locked behind closed doors.
Part of the prevention measures include adequate sex and healthy relationships education, as well as discouraging gender stereotyping in schools. The United Nations weren’t kidding when they said the Istanbul Convention was the global ‘gold standard’ for tackling violence against women.
What’s the government’s problem?
So far, the UK government has only signed the convention. This means they support it in principle, but are not legally bound to actually do anything it says. Signing a convention is nothing more than stating your intention to ratify, but when an average of two women die each week at the hands of a partner or ex partner, we can’t afford to wait any longer.
It’s through total lack of public awareness that the government has been able to not only drag its heels on tackling violence against women, but also quietly remove funding from domestic violence support services under its austerity programme. None of the main political parties included any mention of the Istanbul Convention in their manifestos.
If the UK ratified the Istanbul Convention, it would have to rapidly shape up its act. Not only this, but it would be held to account by the Council of Europe. The convention subjects governments to scrutiny by an expert monitoring group that holds them to account and measures progress. This means that when governments are failing to exercise due diligence to prevent and protect against violence against women, feminist campaigners would be able to call on much higher powers to ensure that the UK government secures women’s safety.
Women deserve better
For too long, politicians have gotten away with ignoring sky-high levels of gender-based violence. The only thing that can stop this epidemic is urgent, systemic change, and the Istanbul Convention could be the magic formula.
The important thing to remember is that the Istanbul Convention was drafted by gender experts, not politicians. These experts know exactly what needs to happen to stop violence against women, and have done all the thinking, research and leg work; all governments need to do is put their recommendations into action.
Throughout history, feminists have battled to get the government to recognise its responsibility for tackling violence against women. The achievement of gender equality is undoubtedly linked to the eradication of violence against women, and the Istanbul Convention would be a historical landmark for women’s rights in the UK.
Women are dying. We can’t wait any longer. The sooner the Istanbul Convention comes into power, the sooner we can be safer.
The image is a photo of the Council of Europe headquarters in Strasbourg.