Istanbul Convention at 10 years: leading the way to life free from violence

Statement for UN International Women's Day by German Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth Franziska Giffey and Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić

This May, the Council of Europe celebrates 10 years of the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which is better known as the Istanbul Convention, since it was opened for signature in Istanbul in 2011.

The treaty today binds 34 countries across Europe. Twelve more have signed, and considering the added value of this innovative legally binding instrument, we urge them to ratify it. The Istanbul Convention and its monitoring have enabled the Council of Europe to take the lead in keeping women and girls free from violence, even as we face imposing challenges: from COVID-19 to groups making false claims about the treaty. We must boldly overcome obstacles to ensure continued progress in ending all forms of violence against women and girls.

In 17 countries evaluated so far by GREVIO, the group responsible for monitoring treaty implementation, much has been achieved so far. Telephone helplines to provide victims support and information have been set up in all of these countries, and several in response to the Istanbul Convention, such as in Monaco, Albania, Montenegro, Finland, and Serbia. However, in many countries, steps need to be taken to ensure that these helplines are available around-the-clock designed for victims of all forms of violence against women.

GREVIO’s reports and subsequent developments have shown how some countries have expanded the range of services available to women victims, including by building shelters in areas where they previously had been unavailable, or introducing vital and specialised services for victims of sexual violence. Since 2016, as required under the Convention, crisis centres for women and girl victims of sexual violence have been set up for the first time in Albania, Belgium, Portugal and Finland. Montenegro recently addressed an existing shortage of shelters in the northern part of the country by funding an NGO-run and licensed domestic violence shelter.

Laws are changing to define rape as based on lack of consent rather than on proof of use of force and threat. This important step takes away the shame from women victims, firmly placing the blame on the perpetrators. Sweden, for example, recently amended its criminal code, to incorporate an approach that recognises that “only yes means yes” and “passivity is not a sign of voluntary participation” and first results show that prosecution rates are going up.

But the path towards progress has been rocky. Most recently, lockdowns and other restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have led to record increases in domestic abuse. National domestic violence hotlines throughout Europe have been reporting dramatic increases in distress calls.

Furthermore, the Istanbul Convention recognizes a long heritage throughout history by which women were denied the same rights as men, including the right to vote, to work or even to open their own bank accounts. Some socially constructed roles based on this heritage have put women into more vulnerable positions that can lead – and have led – to violence against them simply because they are women. Groups that do not see this connection have made misleading claims against the treaty. They distract attention from its unique objectives: preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence. Politicians in some countries have called for withdrawing from the treaty, which we would consider a serious step back for human rights.

We cannot take any backwards steps because the Istanbul Convention offers a thorough toolkit to address the many manifestations of violence against women, including those in the online world. Monitoring is carried out in full cooperation with governments and offers vital assistance on where to intensify efforts and tailored-made guidance to achieve our common goal to uphold women’s lives free from violence. Monitoring provides an added necessary layer of protection. It has identified good practices in countries that have been shared with others and allows for states parties to better address common challenges.

It is on the basis of common efforts and in the context of international human rights law that we can usher in a decade to propel women’s rights front and centre. Women and girls make up 50% of our population, and we must offer them a world that enables them to fulfil their potential and to contribute, rather than being held back by experiences of violence and gender inequality.

Because of its comprehensive nature, many call the Istanbul Convention the “gold standard”: it addresses violence against women in all its forms, sets out necessary tools to prevent it, protects its victims and prosecutes perpetrators.

In a context where attempts are made to distort reality and deny well-documented facts, we remind readers that, according to the World Health Organisation, 1 in 3 women experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime, mostly by an intimate partner.

The Istanbul Convention and its monitoring are essential tools to lower this awful tally. But it can lead to tangible changes only when fully supported and implemented. Over the next 10 years – and we hope much sooner – we set the goal that all Council of Europe member states become states party to it.