10 things you need to know about the Istanbul Convention on violence against women

The Istanbul Convention against gender-based and domestic violence marks its tenth anniversary. We look at what it is, who its signatories are, and what the future might hold.

The Istanbul Convention, or the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, turns 10 years old on 11th May. Having originated from the Council of Europe in 2011, the Convention is the binding international treaty with the widest scope to combat this serious form of human rights violation.

Its goals are to prevent violence, protect victims, and prosecute their aggressors. Signatories are exhorted and monitored so that they adapt their legislation to include all the new criminal offences defined by the Convention, which cover psychological violence and violence due to social constructs, in addition to physical violence.

The Convention seeks to pursue the goal of zero tolerance towards gender-based violence and lays the groundwork for increasing awareness and making women’s lives safer both within and outside of Europe’s borders. Indeed, the treaty has been ratified by European Union member states but also by countries outside of the Union, since the Council of Europe counts 47 member states.

Unfortunately, however, the Convention is experiencing a rather turbulent part of its life: one country, Turkey, has been the first to withdraw from the agreement, and other members – like Poland and Hungary – have, for some time now, given signals of having doubts and cold feet.

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The Istanbul Convention is a binding international treaty on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence © Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

The history of the Istanbul Convention

Nevertheless, the agreement signed on 11th May 2011 probably remains one of the most impactful, on a global scale, in terms of respecting human rights from a legal, cultural, and political perspective. For the first time ever, violence against women was defined as a violation of human rights and as a form of discrimination, establishing that a State that doesn’t do enough to respond to this kind of situation should be held responsible for that same violence.

The idea for the text started decades earlier, in the 1990s. The Council of Europe, an international organisation that also counts some extra-European countries among its 47 current members, was founded in 1949 to promote democracy, human rights, European cultural identity, and the search for solutions to social issues in Europe. In the 90s, it was starting to realise the true scope of the question of gender-based violence. Then, at the end of 2008, the Council set up an expert task force to prepare a convention draft that would establish criteria to be applied at the global level to combat the phenomenon.

The result of this work was a treaty that came into force in 2014, once it had been ratified by its tenth signatory. It is the first binding international instrument that creates a complete legal framework to protect women against any form of violence and prevent, prosecute, and eliminate violence against women and domestic violence. The Convention also establishes a specific monitoring mechanism (called GREVIO) to ensure the effective implementation of its provisions by the Parties.

The signatories of the Istanbul Convention

In 2011, the treaty’s original signatories were Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Luxembourg, Montenegro, Portugal, Slovakia, Sweden, and Turkey. Subsequently, the accord was signed by a total of 45 countries but only ratified (and thus enforced) in 19 of these, including Italy in 2013. Furthermore, the Convention is also open to ratification by the European Union, as well as countries that are not part of the Council of Europe but that, in various capacities, played a part in drafting the text. These include the United States, Canada, Kazakhstan, Japan, Mexico, and the Vatican.

Five things you should know about the Istanbul Convention

1. The Convention’s “four Ps”

Often, when discussing sustainable development, we talk about the “three Ps” – “people, planet, prosperity”. The Istanbul Convention, on the other hand, is based around four Ps, which provide an excellent way to understand its terms. The first P is “prevention“, and covers the cultural side of the issue: ensuring that the cultural reasons that lead to gender-based violence are eradicated. This involves changing those attitudes, gender roles, and stereotypes that make violence against women seem acceptable; raising public awareness on different forms of violence and their traumatic impact; including educational materials on gender equality at every level of education; cooperating with non-governmental organisations, the mass-media, and the private sector to educate the wider public.

The second pillar is “protection” and it covers the social aspects of the issue: ensuring that implemented measures place special emphasis on the needs and safety of victims; establishing special protection services to provide medical and psychological support and legal advice to victims and their children; setting up a sufficient number of safe houses and shelters, as well as free 24-hour telephone helplines.

The third P is “prosecution” and it covers the penal aspect of violence: ensuring that it is adequately punished; making sure that the culture, customs and traditions, religion, or so-called “honour” cannot justify any act of violence; ensuring that victims have access to special protection measures during investigations and legal proceedings; making sure that law enforcement services provide an immediate response to requests for assistance.

Finally, the last pillar is “coordinated policies“, which covers the remit and responsibilities of institutions: ensuring that the set of measures outlined above fall within a package of coordinated and global policies that offer a fully comprehensive response to violence against women and domestic violence.

2. It’s the tool that allows for precise monitoring of femicides

In fact, before the Istanbul Convention was approved, no country in the world had ever carried out a yearly survey of femicides. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (and the Polizia di Stato in Italy) only started this type of count in 2017, starting precisely from the definition set out in the convention: “The killing of a woman by an intimate partner and death of a woman as a result of a practice that is harmful to women. An intimate partner is understood as a former or current spouse or partner, whether or not the perpetrator shares or has shared the same residence with the victim”. Without a precise definition of femicide, it would not have been possible to create a true map of the phenomenon.

3. It introduced new types of crime that could not previously be prosecuted

The Istanbul Convention includes a detailed list of gender-based crimes that the signatories must commit to combat: psychological violence, stalking and related acts, physical violence, sexual violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), forced abortion and forced sterilisation, sexual harassment. Some of these – such as FGM, forced marriage, stalking, forced abortion, and forced sterilisation – were entirely new types of crime that were not included in many countries’ jurisdictions.

Therefore, the Parties will have to introduce new and important types of crime that had previously not been included in their legal systems. For example, after having ratified the Convention, Italy approved the so-called Code Red (Codice Rosso) in 2019, which punishes revenge porn precisely because it constitutes psychological violence.

4. Why the “Istanbul” Convention if Turkey has withdrawn?

In 2011, Turkey was the staunchest proponent of the treaty, which led to it being signed in Istanbul, seen as a bridge between Europe and Asia, both geographically and in terms of human rights. Turkey was also the first country to ratify the treaty, on 12th March 2012. Nine years later, in March 2021, in the wake of a gradual but steady restriction of civil liberties, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signed a decree marking Turkey’s withdrawal, claiming that the treaty “threatens family values”.

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A women’s march in Turkey on International Women’s Day. On 20th March, Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention on violence against women, after having been the first to sign it © Burak Kara/Getty Images

5. It still hasn’t been ratified by several EU countries

While Turkey is the first country to have withdrawn from the agreement, even within the Europan Union there have been grumbling from some member states. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Moldova, and the three Baltic Republics (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) signed the treaty but haven’t ratified it, and neither has the United Kingdom, which recently left the EU.

Meanwhile, looking just beyond Europe’s borders, Ukraine also hasn’t ratified the treaty, while Russia didn’t even sign it.

Five misconceptions about the Istanbul Convention

1. It’s not the first important international legal intervention

The Istanbul Convention is undoubtedly the first legally binding international legal tool in terms of preventing and combating gender-based violence. However, this doesn’t detract from the fact that it has some important predecessors: the first one was CEDAW, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, adopted in 1979. Then, in 1993, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

2. It’s not just a formal document, it’s a binding treaty

This is entirely untrue. First of all because, as has been said, the Convention compels the countries that have ratified it to harmonise their legislation to include, where they are missing, all the types of gender-based crime set out in the Convention. Furthermore, the treaty establishes a monitoring mechanism to verify the effective implementation of its provisions, made up of an independent group of experts in actions against violence against women and domestic violence and the Committee of the Parties, a political body that brings together the countries’ official representatives. Italy, for example, is well aware that the Convention is not just a formal act, having been judged as non-compliant in 2020 regarding the protection of women who are victims of abuse. It was found that the country was lacking both in terms of prevention and the presence of anti-violence centres and resources at their disposal, as well as being criticised for the lack of transparent data on the number of violent episodes.

3. It doesn’t promote so-called “gender theories” and doesn’t present a danger to families

This is probably the most self-serving accusation laid against the treaty. The Istanbul Convention was the first to provide a definition of gender, which includes the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society deems appropriate for women and men. Therefore, it distinguishes between male and female genders. Its core aim was rather to dismantle gender-based stereotypes and oppose any attempt to: confine women and men to traditional roles, thus limiting their personal, educational, and professional development, and life opportunities more generally; justify and maintain the patriarchy, the historic power relations of men over women, and sexist attitudes that impede the advancement of gender equality; refute the concept of women’s right to live a life free from violence.

4. Does it only condemn gender-based violence?

This is true only in part. Naturally, the Convention covers some forms of violence that only women can suffer, such as forced abortions and female genital mutilation, and others that disproportionately affect women due to imbalances in power and physical strength and the social discrimination that women face. However, men also suffer certain forms of violence included in the Convention, like domestic violence and forced marriage, albeit more rarely and often in less severe forms. The Convention encourages the Parties to implement its provisions for all victims of domestic violence, including men, children, and the elderly.

5. The prevalence of violence against women is not decreasing

Gender-related killing of women and girls, a study published in 2018 by the UNODC, revealed that every year 87,000 women are killed for gender-based reasons worldwide. In Italy, one of the Convention’s signatory countries with the lowest rates of femicide, these killings have decreased by 44 per cent over the past 25 years, from 0.64 to 0.36 cases per 100,000 people.

However, in 2020, the number started to rise for the first time: the 7th EURES report on femicide counted 111 for the year, while in 2019 there had been 99. In this sense, the coronavirus lockdown that forced people to stay indoors for several months accentuated the problem of domestic violence, especially as related to cohabitating couples.

A question of culture

On 10th May, the eve of the 10th anniversary, institutions in Italy -like in many other signatory nations – will celebrate the Convention with a conference organised by the Senate Inquiry Committee on Femicide, together with the Universities Network Against Gender-Based Violence (Università in Rete contro la violenza di genere) to better understand the role of universities in combating gender violence. Simona Lanzoni, Vice-President of GREVIO, will be among the participants.

This is a way to highlight the importance of prevention in protecting our women and young people through culture. In the words of Cinzia Leone, VP of the Inquiry Committee: “legal intervention is no doubt necessary, but we must devise a global and well-structured project to introduce in our schools”. This is exactly what the treaty states. “Essentially, we now have an Istanbul Convention without Istanbul, a real paradox – Vice-President Leone concludes – but the convention still defines the guidelines for our work, and we have to celebrate it”.

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