Lockdowns, Violence against Women and the Istanbul Convention
Written by Stefanía Reynisdóttir, Member of the Editorial Team of Libertas
For the past months our lives changed drastically because of restrictions set to curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Social distancing measures have meant that schools have had to move to online classes and workplaces to teleworking. More serious lockdown measures continue to prevent social interactions and affect businesses, restaurants and hotels which are suffering deep economic losses. Our daily routines now include much more time spent in our homes safe from a virus.
However, for many the home is not necessarily a safe space. Lockdown measures have meant that many women and girls have found themselves trapped at home with their abusers, unable to access safety and support services. Reports have seen surges in violence against women of upward 25% in countries where reporting systems are in place, with some countries even reporting a doubling of cases. An alarming spike in calls to helplines and women’s shelters across Europe from women at risk of domestic violence has also been observed. Reports only show half the picture, as many women who find themselves without access to private spaces in lockdown struggle to make that call or to seek needed help online.
This increase in domestic and gendered violence as a consequence of restrictions taken by governments and the European Union highlights the need to strengthen protections for women and girls’ rights. Unfortunately, we are seeing the adverse happen. In recent months we have witnessed several European countries, most notably Poland and Turkey, express their desire to leave the Istanbul Convention, otherwise known as The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.
The Istanbul Convention is the first legally binding instrument and European treaty specifically targeting violence against women and domestic violence. States that ratify the Convention have an obligation to protect and support survivors of gender-based violence, by fx. establishing services such as hotlines, shelters, medical services, counselling and legal aid. The Convention also sets out legal definitions of rape and requires the criminalization of rape and all other non-consensual acts of sexual nature.
Attempts to leave the Convention signal a wider motive to reinforce the patriarchy and to demonize women’s rights and gender equality. Putting an end to violence against women is important as it is an obstacle to achieving equality, development, peace and the general fulfillment of women and girls’ human rights. Withdrawing from the Convention will have dangerous consequences for the rights of millions of women and girls who count on the vital support the Convention is supposed to assure. Deepening pre-existing inequalities during a global pandemic is unacceptable.
The problem is bigger than simply a regression of these rights as some states that have signed the Convention have yet to ratify it, while those who have ratified still largely fail in its implementation. The Convention has been signed by 45 states and the EU, but only ratified by 34 of those states. Of those states that have ratified only a few have a legal definition of rape that is in line with the consent-based standards set out in the Convention. The reasons for these failures in ratification and implementation are manifold, yet equally serious. In countries such as Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary the failure to ratify stems from outdated ideas of gender which in turn upholds harmful impacts of gender stereotypes in their societies that continue to put women and girls at risk of violence. Similar misconceptions impede ratification in Ukraine where laws on combating domestic violence remain poorly implemented.
With the surge of domestic violence in this pandemic and consequent attempts at rolling back previous victories for women’s rights, we as liberals must speak up against these harrowing developments. Retrogression on women’s rights does not only violate our values as liberals but also violates the principle of non-retrogression under international human rights law.
A gendered perspective is crucial in all stages of EU political and policy response to the crisis. However, it is simply not enough that states in face of this situation introduce temporary measures to provide support to women and children in danger of violence if at the same time they are failing to fully implement the Istanbul Convenvention which should already be offering that protection.
On this International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, during a pandemic where women’s rights and lifes are under threat, we must call on European states to fully implement the Istanbul Convention to ensure the continued protection of women and girls’ rights. We cannot stand for the rights of women and girls to be questioned or reversed.
About the Author:
Stefanía Reynisdóttir is a young professional currently living and working in Brussels, Belgium. She holds an MSc in International Relations from the University of Edinburgh where she focused her studies on China’s Foreign Policy behaviour in the Arctic. She also has a Bachelor of Political Science from the University of Iceland and a Certificate from the International Honors Program at Stanford University.
Stefanía is the current International Officer of Uppreisn, the young liberals of Iceland. She is a firm believer in liberal values and is passionate about gender equality, civil rights, and sexual freedom.