What the UK ratifying the Istanbul convention on gendered violence means for women and girls

Working to end violence against women is a fraught endeavour. Not least because gaining international consensus and cooperation on issues around gender equality can be tense.

The scale of problem, however, is clear. The European Network for the Work with Perpetrators of Domestic Violence notes that one in three women globally has experienced either physical or sexual violence. In the EU, more than one in five women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence from a partner, with one in ten experiencing such violence as a child.

The Council of Europe launched its convention on preventing and combating violence against women in 2011. In the ten years since, commitment from certain signatories to the Istanbul convention (so named for the location of that initial committee meeting) has begun to waver.

In July 2021, Turkey pulled out, despite a significant increase in national rates of femicide in the past decade. More recently Poland said it might withdraw too, a move which inspired protest marches in Warsaw.

The convention aims to tackle violence – including domestic abuse, rape, female genital mutilation and forced marriage. Both Poland and Turkey, however, have denounced the impact it has on what they term “traditional family values”.

On November 1 2022, the convention comes into force in the UK. The government has ascribed its lengthy delay to ratify the treaty to, variously, the lengthy process involved in ensuring domestic law can comply, as well as the impact of austerity cuts on services for victims and survivors.

Even as the UK becomes the 37th signatory state, critics highlight its controversial decision to not commit to providing support for migrant women whose immigration status has not been resolved.

Why signing the Istanbul convention matters

The Istanbul convention is articulated around four pillars: prevention, protection, prosecution and coordinated policies. States that ratify it are legally bound to abide by these pillars as well as monitor their implementation.

The “prevention” pillar encompasses measures around promoting gender equality, challenging gender stereotypes and challenging attitudes that condone gendered violence. In particular, it stipulates that perpetrator programmes be set up.

When skilled professionals work with male perpetrators, it can contribute to the changes needed for violence against women to stop. It can shift belief systems and cultural and political attitudes towards gender hierarchies, gendered violence and gender discrimination.

In the UK, the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 strengthened the legislative framework around gendered violence and service provision for both victims and perpetrators. This new legislation means the UK can finally comply with the Istanbul convention.

But in May 2022, former home secretary Priti Patel specified that the UK would be making two key reservations. In particular, it has not agreed to the provision in Article 59 of the treaty that victim-survivors with insecure immigration status be supported.

Charities, including Women’s Aid, have been hugely critical of this reservation. They note that this will only exacerbate the wider struggles migrant women face, in the context of the so-called hostile environment. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has been heavily critical of the UK, noting that the Nationality and Borders Act “undermines established international refugee protection law and practices”.

The End Violence Against Women coalition, an umberalla organisation for women’s rights in the UK, has labelled the UK’s current exemption to the Istanbul convention as “disastrous”. In an open letter on May 30 2022, it stated that this will create a “two-tier system, where migrant women are given a lesser status and lesser protections”.

What needs to be done for women to be safe

Nicole Jacobs, the domestic abuse commissioner for England and Wales, has highlighted the risk undocumented migrant women face when unable to access state funds. She has also underlined risk of perpetrators exploiting victims insecure immigration status to further their abuse.

Jacobs has requested a “firewall” so that victims’ information would not be shared with immigration authorities. At present this has been rejected by the government.

Before committing fully to the terms of the Istanbul convention, the home office says it wishes to “establish the evidence base” on the issues migrant women face and the funding needed to support them. It places the onus on local areas to establish need.

In particular, the government wants to evaluate its Support for Migrants scheme, which is currently delivering support for women with no recourse to public funds. This pilot scheme, however, has limited funds. One charity administering it, the Southall Black Sisters non-profit, has reported it to be “wholly inadequate”.

In 2020 charities, academics and police forces, among others, called for the UK government to do more to tackle domestic violence and gendered abuse. They expressed concern, in particular, that the UK’s current perpetrator intervention programmes do not have the necessary funding, capacity and governmental backing they need to function.

Ratifying the Istanbul convention is significant because it means the UK is now legally obliged to do better. The biggest problem, as our ongoing research suggests, is that few professionals from the health, social work and criminal justice sectors in the UK even know about it.

They are unaware of how best to leverage its provisions to get what they need to do their jobs. Making sure they do is the first step to ensuring support for all victims, regardless of their immigration status, and holding perpetrators to account.

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