On Tuesday, a week ahead of International Women’s Day, the European Parliament once again urged the EU to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence as soon as possible. One in three women in the EU had already experienced physical or sexual violence, necessitating a swift ratification by the 27-country bloc, several MEPs said.

Several of the countries that have already ratified the document also redefined their laws to protect women. Others still lack a national plan to implement the Convention.

The Istanbul Convention was drafted by the Council of Europe, a non-EU organization monitoring human rights, in 2011. The ratification of the Convention needed 10 ratifications by 10 States. Of these 10 States which were first to ratify it, 8 were members of the Council of Europe. By signing it, the countries committed themselves to prevent, prosecute and eliminate violence against women. It entered into force on 1 August 2014 and was signed by the EU on 13 June 2017.

Nearly six years after signing the Convention, the EU has still not ratified it, because six members – Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia – have refused to do so in the EU Council. However, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in 2021 that the EU could proceed with ratification even without unanimity.

Poland, which ratified the Convention in 2015, is currently trying to revoke it, deeming it “harmful” because it requires schools to teach children about gender. Turkey withdrew from the Convention in 2021. Despite the war, Ukraine was able to ratify the Istanbul Convention, the first international treaty to set legally binding standards to prevent violence against women, last year.

‘Yes means yes’: Progressive laws in Spain and Slovenia

Slovenia and Spain have both ratified the Istanbul Convention (Spain in 2014, Slovenia in 2015) and even redefined the crimes of rape and sexual violence to adopt the “yes means yes” concept. This means that if a person does not clearly express their will to engage in sexual activity, this has to be considered as a “no”. The new legislation, therefore, does not necessarily contemplate the use of force as a requirement to punish an aggression.

According to a report by the European Women’s Lobby from 2020, Spain has improved in the field of prevention and prosecution of crimes against women since the ratification. The country increased financial support for affected women and created refuge centers.

Complying with the guidelines of the Istanbul Convention, Spain also became the first country in the European Union to officially record all types of femicides in 2022. Even so, the eradication of violence against women continues to be a challenge in Spain, where 49 women were killed by gender-based violence last year.

The Spanish Minister of Equality, Irene Montero, during the closing ceremony of the International Feminist Meeting organized by the Ministry of Equality, with a panel of leading women from different corners of the world, at the Faculty of Medicine of the Complutense University of Madrid. Photo: EFE/ Borja Sánchez Trillo

Slovenia has had no major problems complying with the Convention, when in mid-2020 the Polish government started to examine the possibility to withdraw from the Convention, the Slovenian government at that time saw no need to do so. According to the report for 2021 of the Council of Europe’s Grevio Group of Experts, which is responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Convention, Slovenia had made progress in establishing a legal, institutional and policy framework.

However, more attention should be paid to women from vulnerable groups and the improvement of data collection, and the criminal justice system should take stronger action against all forms of violence against women. Domestic violence against women increased significantly during the Covid 19 pandemic. In 2020, there were ten cases of femicide. According to the latest data, every fifth woman in Slovenia has experienced some form of violence.

Germany lacks a national action plan

The Istanbul Convention came into force in Germany on February 1, 2018. However, for the Convention to be implemented according to the guidelines, there is a shortage of thousands of women’s shelter places.

The latest Grevio report on Germany stated in October 2022 that there had been a lack of a national action plan so far, even though the Convention indicates one. Women’s shelters and counseling centers are very unevenly distributed and there is a shortage of them in rural areas. In larger cities, there are often long waiting lists. The experts further called for a review mechanism to analyze all gender-based killings of women and to identify where institutions need to respond differently.

However, the experts welcomed some developments in the German criminal law. This included, for example, the explicit criminalization of technology-based abuse such as cyber-stalking or the unauthorized photographing of intimate body parts.

Italy: Resistance to gender topics

In 2013, Italy was the fifth country to ratify the Istanbul Convention. According to the 2020 Grevio report, Italy’s laws are in many cases “innovative”, but too often not implemented effectively and uniformly throughout the country. In addition, the report raised various concerns regarding gender equality, data collection in courts and custody cases after women became victims of domestic violence.

Furthermore, the report states, the country must “provide adequate financial and human resources” to implement existing laws and policies. Policies should be coordinated and monitored “between national, regional and local authorities.” In addition, the experts call for action in establishing basic and specialized services for female victims of violence, which should be accessible throughout the country.

The Grevio report notes a “resistance regarding gender equality” in Italy. This has for example manifested itself in both schools and universities through a delegitimization of gender studies. Some cities have “censored” events that were to be held in public libraries and aimed at raising awareness on gender issues.

Croatia: Controversy over ratification

Like in other Central and Eastern European countries, the Istanbul Convention was divisive for Croatian society. Croatia signed the agreement on January 22, 2013, and the Croatian parliament, the Sabor, eventually ratified it on April 13, 2018. But the ratification shook the center-right ruling party Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).

Prime Minister Andrej Plenković attempted to appease critics, within and outside the party, by including a statement in the law stating that the convention is consistent with the Constitution of the Republic of Croatia, and that it does not contain the so-called gender ideology. Opponents, mainly circles close to the Catholic Church, pointed out that the Istanbul Convention was being misused to introduce the so-called “gender ideology”, i.e., the separation between gender and biological gender, into Croatian legislation, education, and the media. Others pointed out that science also distinguishes between sex and gender.

Women’s rights activists believe that the Istanbul Convention has been inadequately implemented in Croatia. At a roundtable discussion in the Croatian parliament last November, they said the system is inadequate because judges do not know what gender-based violence is. They were particularly critical of court procedures that impose symbolic sentences for domestic violence.

Another problem is that women find it difficult to report an abusive partner, being afraid they will not be believed. If they decide to report, they often do so years after the fact when they file for a divorce, and are then often confronted with doubts as to whether any violence occurred at all. Psychological violence against women is also often not acknowledged.

A delegation of the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO) carried out an evaluation visit to Croatia from 17 to 21 October 2022.GREVIO plans to publish its evaluation report on Croatia during 2023.

Bulgaria: Pushing for laws against domestic violence without ratification

In 2018, Bulgaria’s Constitutional Court adopted a decision stating that the Istanbul Convention advances legal concepts related to the notion of gender that are incompatible with the fundamental principles of the Bulgarian Constitution. In line with this decision, Bulgaria did not support the two draft Council decisions on EU ratification of the Istanbul Convention, by which the Council seeks the consent of the European Parliament, the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) explained earlier in February.

The Bulgarian government and civil society were working actively to prevent forms of violence against women and provide protection and support to the victims, the MFA added. Last December, the Bulgarian Ministry of the Interior said that a total of 3,085 protection orders had been issued under the Protection Against Domestic Violence Act between January 1 and October 31 of 2022. In these 10 months 2,656 women, 349 men and 873 children were victims of domestic violence, perpetrated by 2,713 men and 283 women.

In November, the Bulgarian Justice Ministry presented a draft bill with amendments to the Protection Against Domestic Violence Act, envisaging the creation of a national information system and a national register of domestic violence cases.

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Every fourth women victim of domestic violence

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) was among the first countries in Europe to ratify the Istanbul Convention in 2013. However, the convention has not been fully incorporated into the country’s legal framework, even though some parts are included in entity laws.

The Agency for Gender Equality of BiH is responsible for the implementation of the Convention and for ensuring that there is a uniform system of prevention and protection of victims of violence, without discrimination based on which entity, canton or municipality the victims live in. BiH suffers the consequences of the constitutional division of the country’s jurisdiction. This results in different practices, causing inequality in the implementation of the right to protection, but also in the availability of help and support for the victims.

According to a report by the Gender Equality agency of BiH, every fourth woman in BiH is a victim of domestic violence. Increasingly, violent behavior ends in femicides, without being legally recognized as such. In total, one in two women over the age of 15 have experienced some form of physical, psychological or sexual violence.

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