Olga Jurasz argues that the Istanbul Convention is a necessary tool to transform the course of law and policy on violence against women and girls in Wales.
The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence – in short, the Istanbul Convention – entered into force in the UK on 1 November 2022.
This milestone moment has been indeed long awaited, taking the UK Government over 10 years to progress from the point of signature to ratification, which means that the UK is now legally bound by the principles and obligations set out in the Convention.
The Istanbul Convention is generally – and deservedly so – regarded as a landmark modern treaty on violence against women (VAW). It is the first European treaty to explicitly address VAW, including domestic violence, and to firmly position it as a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination against women (Article 3a). It tackles one of the most persisting societal challenges – violence against women and girls – setting a clear framework and a roadmap for states to take proactive steps towards addressing this problem. Centred around the four pillars, also known as ‘4 Ps’ (Prevention, Protection, Prosecution, Co-ordinated Policies), the Convention sets out a comprehensive landscape of measures that member state can take to fulfil their obligations.
The Istanbul Convention in Wales
As the Convention covers both devolved and reserved matters, its implementation in Wales is complex. The political appetite to ratify the Istanbul Convention and to make it effective in Wales has been expressed for many years since the UK signed the instrument, both by Welsh politicians and key women’s organisations in Wales. This commitment was further reaffirmed in 2018 by the (then) First Minister Carwyn Jones, who called for the implementation of the Istanbul Convention in Wales ahead of UK government’s ratification and through consistent reliance on its principles in the Welsh Government’s National Strategy on Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence 2016-2021 and 2022-2026. But what does the coming into force of the Istanbul Convention mean for women in Wales?
The provisions of the Istanbul Convention are a much-needed addition to this emerging legislative and policy landscape.
Wales is no stranger to putting matters of gender equality and combatting violence against women and girls on its devolved agenda. Arguably, Wales’ modern and progressive legislative attitude is reflected in the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the Violence Against Women, Sexual Violence and Domestic Abuse (Wales) Act 2015. Both pieces of legislation are unique in that they do not introduce new offences but rather place legal requirements on public bodies – including local authorities and heath boards – to put measures in place to give effect to the objectives set out in these two Acts.
Whilst in case of the Violence Against Women, Sexual Violence and Domestic Abuse Act this clearly and specifically tackles VAWG, the relevance of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act is equally striking: it is impossible to imagine equal, healthy and cohesive communities in Wales if violence against women and girls is allowed to thrive unchallenged, leaving little to no support for the victims, severely affecting women’s and girls’ lives as well as those of communities in which it happens. Indeed, the latest National Strategy on Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence 2022-2026 explicitly adopts a public health approach to tackling VAWG.
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The provisions of the Istanbul Convention are a much-needed addition to this emerging legislative and policy landscape. The (now) legally binding nature of this instrument, allows the Welsh Government as well as law and policymakers to firmly ground their commitments in an international instrument which, in many ways, sets a ‘gold standard’ for tackling VAWG in modern societies. Combined with the devolved powers of the Welsh Government, this instrument is a powerful tool in challenging and responding to VAWG in Wales, combining the international standards on VAWG with local knowledge and expertise – for instance, with regard to supporting survivors of VAWG or creating education programmes for girls and boys that challenge gender stereotypes whilst promoting non-violence and gender equality.
Ratification of the Istanbul Convention also brings tools for ensuring state accountability for VAWG. GREVIO – Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence – is a monitoring mechanism set up as part of the Convention. It is an independent expert body responsible for periodic monitoring of the implementation of the Convention by the state parties which – in case of the UK – would involve actions taken by the devolved governments, mirroring the current practice of the UN Committee on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee). It not only leaves ‘no place to hide’ for the governments, but also empowers civil society organisations in challenging practices which fall short of the standards set out in the Convention.
Is the Istanbul Convention anything more than a toothless tiger?
As this piece sets out to mark the International Day on Elimination of Violence Against Women, it is impossible to ignore the socio-political and economic context surrounding the coming into force of the Istanbul Convention: a time of political uncertainty and austerity. Such circumstances, generally speaking, more often than not leave already limited funding and support for tackling VAWG at a real risk of further financial cuts and deprioritisation. The decision of the UK Government to opt out from Article 59 of the Istanbul Convention concerning the support for migrant women and girls who experience gender-based violence is illustrative of this dynamic and has been a subject of severe critique by the Equality and Social Justice Committee.
Moreover, the Convention comes in force at a time when VAWG is reportedly on the rise: according to the Office of National Statistics, an estimated 1.6 million women aged 16 to 74 suffered domestic abuse in England and Wales in the year ending March 2020 and 81 women were killed in a domestic homicide. Furthermore, 1 in 3 women over the age of 16 in Great Britain were subjected to at least one form of harassment in the last year, increasing to 2 in 3 for women in 16 to 34 age range. According to Chwarae Teg, only 28% of women in Wales feel safe walking alone in the dark. This is further challenged by the widely acknowledged crisis in policing on VAWG (including misogyny in the police forces), increase in concerns about women’s safety in public spaces and the rise in online and technologically-enabled violence against women and girls.
As we approach #16Days of Activism, the key task for the Welsh Government will be to ensure the ongoing political will to put the commitments on ending VAWG in Wales into action. This must involve proactive work across all four pillars of the Istanbul Convention, including inter-agency cooperation and meaningful collaboration with expert civil society organisations in Wales. With the necessary legal tools now in place, making Wales “the safest place for women”, is no longer a political aspiration – it is a priority.
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