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From the Istanbul Convention to the EU Gender Equality Strategy: a call to end violence against women

“Violence against women is understood as a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination against women and shall mean all acts of gender-based violence that result in, or are likely to result in, physical, sexual, psychological or economic harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life”

                                                                                        (Article 3, Istanbul Convention)

Gender-based violence in the EU

Violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread and devastating human rights violations across the globe. The estimation is that 35% of women have experienced violence at some point in their lives.[1] Violence against women has always existed, however, only in the last two decades the international community has begun to highlight and define the problem.[2]

The latest biggest survey on gender-based violence in Europe is the “Violence against women: an EU-wide survey” by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) from 2014. The latter is the first survey of its kind to capture the scope and nature of violence against women in all the EU Member States through the use of the same questionnaire, the same mode of application and based on random sampling. The survey is divided into nine chapters, each of them represent a topic that has been analysed. For the sake of this article three of them will be reported.

In order to understand why EU institutions need to take common actions in regards to violence against women, it is important to know how serious this problem is. Thus, an overview of the main findings of the FRA report is given.

Physical and sexual violence:

– 13 million women in the EU have experienced physical violence in the course of the 12 months before the survey interviews

– 3.7 million women in the EU have experienced sexual violence in the course of 12 months before the survey interviews

Physical violence can be manifested in different forms; in this survey, the following were taken in consideration: pushing, shoving, slapping, grabbing or pulling a woman’s hair.

The results show that one in three women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence since she was 15 years old. Among those, 11% have experienced some form of sexual violence either by a partner or some other person.

Psychological partner violence:

It is important to understand that violence against women does not always need to involve physical abuse. Psychological violence has been considered one of the most relevant dimensions of gender-based violence. One in three women has experienced some form of psychological violence by an intimate partner, which includes other forms of abuse alongside psychologically abusive behaviour.

To have an idea of which are the most common forms of psychological violence, in this survey they analysed: controlling behaviour, economic violence, abusive behaviour, blackmail and abuse of children.

Sexual harassment:

– 83 million to 102 million women in the EU have experienced sexual harassment since the age of 15 (45% to 55%).

– 24 million to 39 million women (13 to 21%) in the EU have experienced sexual harassment in the 12 months before the survey interview.

Sexual harassment is multidimensional; it could be expressed by physical actions or by verbal and non- verbal acts such as cyber-harassment. The survey is taking into consideration different forms of sexual harassment:

– From inappropriate staring that made you feel intimidated to intrusive comments about your physical appearance.

– From sexual comments or jokes that made you feel offended to unwelcome touching, hugging or kissing.

– From inappropriate invitations to go out on dates to advances on social networking websites.

– From unwanted sexually explicit emails or messages to somebody exposing themselves to you.

– From somebody sending sexually explicit pictures to someone made you watch pornographic material against your wishes.

Finally, if looking at the most threatening forms of sexual harassment, which according to FRA are the five mentioned above, 45% of women in the EU have experienced these acts of violence at least once in their lifetime. [3]                                                           

In order to combat violence against women, the Council of Europe has undertaken a series of initiative since the 1990s. As the Council of Europe has a leading role in human rights protection, it decided that it was necessary to set standards to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence. Thus, in December 2008, they set up an expert group to prepare a draft convention named the Istanbul Convention. [4]

What is the Istanbul Convention?

The Istanbul Convention is the Council’ of Europe’s human rights treaty on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. It came into force in 2014 and it provides a legal framework for Member States to fight gender-based violence by pursuing on five main purposes: [5]

1. Protect women against all forms of violence, and prevent, prosecute and eliminate violence against women and domestic violence

2. Contribute to the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and promote substantive equality between women and men, including by empowering women

3. Design a comprehensive framework, policies and measures for the protection of and assistance of all victims of violence against women and domestic violence

4. Promote international cooperation with a view to eliminate violence against women and domestic violence

5. Provide support and assistance to organisations and law enforcement agencies to effectively cooperate in order to adopt an integrated approach to eliminating violence against women and domestic violence [6]

The Convention is the first legally binding international instrument on preventing and combating violence against women and girls at international level. As of October 2020, the Convention has been signed by all the EU Member States and ratified by twenty-one. The European Commission, in 2015, made a toolkit on EU accession to the Istanbul Convention which was followed by two proposals for Council Decisions: signing the Convention and the ratification. The EU signed the Convention on 13th June 2017, however, it did not ratify it yet.

During the years following the decision to sign the Convention, the European Parliament has had concerns regarding opposition to the Convention. In 2018, Commission Vice President, Frans Timmermans, argued that, in some countries, there is a strong opposition to the Convention. Therefore, he stressed the point that the Convention is about protecting women against violence, not about challenging traditional families or imposing ideology. In February 2019, a resolution condemned a campaign against the Istanbul Convention as a rejection of the internationally agreed zero-tolerance norm for violence against women. [7]

The EU Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the Council to conclude the EU ratification. The main key actors are in the Committee of Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs where the rapporteur is Kohut Lukasz from S&D. [8]

In the next chapter, Poland will be taken into consideration and analysed as one of the countries which is currently opposing the convention.

Poland: from the ‘Istanbul Convention’ to the ‘Family Rights Convention’

Although Poland ratified the Istanbul Convention in 2015, conservatives are pushing to withdraw from the Convention as it is endangering the traditional family. Earlier this summer, the Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro filled an official request to ask for the withdrawal of Poland from the Istanbul Convention. Additionally, the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, asked to the Polish constitutional court to check whether the Istanbul Convention was in line with the country’s Constitution.

The Polish government began to push a new convention to replace the Istanbul Convention called the Convention on the Rights of the Family. To do so, Ziobro sent to a group of European States (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and Croatia) an invitation for cooperation in the preparation of the new Convention. Indeed, according to Ziobro the current treaty teaches children about gender in an ‘ideological’ way and does not respect religion.[9]

Few days before this episode, the Polish ultra-conservative groups Ordo Iuris and the Christian Social Congress launched the “Family –yes, Gender –no” movement. The latter is a petition that aims to collect 100,000 signatures to file a citizen’s initiative to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention and create a team to write an International Convention on family rights.

The proposal of the party also includes articles about same-sex partnerships and abortion.[10]

The immediate reaction of 2,000 people marching in Warsaw was expected. The Council of Europe had to point out, again, that the Istanbul Convention is only about violence against women and domestic violence; same-sex marriage is not mentioned in the treaty.[11]

However, the situation in Poland got worse. In October, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal imposed a virtual ban on Polish women’s access to abortion care. The country already has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Tens of thousands of Polish citizens have taken the streets to protest and the government has responded with tear-gas and by arresting people.[12] In November, during the plenary session in the Parliament, the MEP Sylwia Spurek said that the ruling of the Polish constitutional tribunal is putting people’s lives at risk. Moreover, in this occasion she called one more time on the Commission to include violence against women in the catalogue of rights and to ratify the Istanbul Convention.[13]

The ratification of the Convention is one of the priorities in the European Commission’s new EU Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025.[14] Thus, it seems like the EU Commission is making progress on the matter, while Poland is going backwards.

The Commission has already expressed concerns regarding breaches of the rule of law in Poland.[15] The Parliament adopted a resolution that strongly condemns Poland’s recent actions regarding abortion rules with 455 votes in favour and 145 against. [16]

The Istanbul Convention need to be ratified and the European Commission needs to take actions to defend Polish citizens’ fundamental rights.

EU Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025

The Commission’s President Von der Leyen presented the new EU Gender Equality Strategy with the key actions for the next five years. The new strategy has as a main objective the vision of a Europe where women and men, girls and boys, in all their diversity, are equal; where they are free to pursue their chosen path in life, where they have equal opportunities to thrive, and where they can equally participate in and lead out European society. 

The strategy will be implemented based on the dual approach of:

1. Key Actions 2020-2025: combating gender-based violence and challenging gender stereotypes, boosting women’s economic empowerment and ensuring equal opportunities in the labour market, including equal pay and giving both women and men the opportunity to lead and participate in all sectors of the economy and political life

2. Gender Mainstreaming: the inclusion of a gender perspective in all EU policies and processes. It is essential to achieve gender equality objectives. Mainstreaming a gender perspective in policy and activities ensures that these adequately respond to the needs and maximise the potential of women and men, girls and boys, in all their diversity.

The first category represents the actions to be taken by the European Commission, the Council and Member States. As the first action aforementioned is ‘combating gender-based violence’, the EU should ratify the Istanbul Convention.

In order to comply with this action, the European Commission has to finalise the accession of the EU to the Convention, the Council has to conclude the EU’s accession and ensure swift EU ratification and the Member States have to ratify and implement the Convention, if they did not do it yet. [17]

The Istanbul Convention is considered as a benchmark for international standards in this field and, if the EU’s finalization remained blocked, the Commission will propose additional measures to achieve the same objectives as the Istanbul Convention. [18]

It is important to make sure that the European Union is promoting gender equality and consequently combating gender-based violence. In a gender-equal world, violence against women would not exist.

New EU Gender Action Plan 2021-2025 (GAP III)

On the 25th of November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the European Commission and High Representative/Vice-President, Josep Borrell together with the Commissioner for International Partnership, Jutta Urpilainen, announced the EU’s new Action Plan on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in External Action 2021-2025 (GAP III). [19]

The GAP III is a call for action to empower more women and girls to be economic, political or environmental actors and leaders.[20] Additionally, it follows the EU Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025, which calls for the EU to scale up its contribution to reach Sustainable Development Goal 5 (Gender Equality). [21]

The GAP III provides the EU with a policy framework based on five pillars of action to make the promotion of gender equality a priority of external policies and actions.

1. The European Commission confirms that 85% of all new external actions will contribute to gender equality and women’s empowerment by 2025

2. Promoting closer cooperation with Member States and strategic EU engagement at multilateral, regional and country level and jointly stepping up implementation of GAP III in each partner country and region

3. Focusing on key thematic areas of engagement, including fighting against gender-based violence and promoting the economic, social and political empowerment of women and girls and harnessing the opportunities offered by a green transition and digital transformation

4. Leading by example, by establishing gender-responsive and gender-balanced leadership at top EU political and management levels

5. Measuring results by adopting a new approach of quantitative, qualitative and inclusive monitoring system to increase public accountability, ensure transparency and access to information[22] [23]

There is still work to do in order to reach a gender-equal Europe and to completely eliminate gender-based violence. Nevertheless, with those new strategies and plans, we are going on the right path. The European institutions should condemn actions like the ones taken in Poland to prevent more European countries to go in this inhuman direction.

[1] European Commission. EU and UN team up to eliminate violence against women and girls. New York. 20th September 2017.

[2] FRA. Violence against women: an EU-wide survey. Luxemburg. 2015.

[3] ibid

[4] Council of Europe. Istanbul Convention. Historical Background. Strasbourg.

[5] EFA. EFA condemns Poland decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. 30th July 2020.

[6] Council of Europe. Convention on preventing and combating violence against woman and domestic violence. Brussels. 12th April 2011.

[7] European Parliament. EU Accession to the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women (Istanbul Convention) / 2016-3. Brussels.

[8] Legislative Observatory. Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (2016/0062). Brussels. 

[9] ibid

[10] Claudia Ciobanu. Poland begins push in region to replace Istanbul Convention with ‘Family Rights’ treaty. Warsaw. 6th October 2020.

[11] The Guardian. Council of Europe ‘alarmed’ at Poland’s plans to leave domestic violence treaty. Strasbourg. 26th July 2020.

[12] Irene Donadio. Poland’s assault on women’s rights is just the beginning. Brussels. 29th October 2020.

[13] The Greens. Abortion rights must be protected. Brussels. 26th November 2020.

[14] ibid

[15] ibid

[16] Maïa De La Baume. MEPs condemn Poland’s abortion law. Brussels. 26th November 2020.

[17] European Commission. Question and Answers: Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025. Brussels. 5th March 200.

[18] European Commission. Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. A Union of Equality: Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025. Brussels. 5th March 2020.

[19] European Commission. Gender Action Plan –putting women and girls’ rights at the heart of the global recovery for a gender-equal world. Brussels. 25th November 2020.

[20] EEAS. Towards a gender-equal world: a mission for all. Brussels. 25th November 2020.

[21] European Commission. Empowering women and girls. Brussels.

[22] European Commission. Joint Communication to the European Parliament and the Council. EU Gender Action Plan (GAP)III –An ambitious agenda for gender equality and women’s empowerment in EU External Action. Brussels. 25th November 2020.

[23] ibid

Adeline Silva Pereira

Après avoir effectué la deuxième année du master Sécurité Globale analyste politique trilingue à l'Université de Bordeaux, j'effectue un stage au sein d'EU Logos afin de pouvoir mettre en pratique mes compétences d'analyste concernant l'actualité européenne sur la défense, la sécurité et plus largement la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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