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Broken promises put more people at risk of domestic violence in COVID-19 Europe

Only four countries met European targets on shelter spaces before coronavirus, amid a conservative backlash against laws to end gender-based violence.

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Nandini Archer Lydia Namubiru Francesca Visser
4 May 2020
Anti-feminist protestors demonstrate against the Istanbul Convention in Kyiv, Ukraine
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Pavlo Gonchar / SOPA Images/Sipa USA

A population larger than Austria’s was already at risk of domestic violence in Europe this year – before the pandemic locked many at home with their abusers.

Over the last decade, numerous governments promised to protect and support these people – but almost all of them were very behind on these commitments. 

“We wouldn’t be in this situation,” said Irene Rosales, policy and campaigns officer at the European Women's Lobby, if governments had responded to “the reality of inequality, harassment and violence so many women face on a daily basis”. 

Instead, government responses have been “insufficient”, said Rosales, and “we must use this moment to recognise” these long-standing failures.

Before COVID-19, only four countries had met key targets to increase shelter spaces in Europe, and a treaty to end gender-based violence faced organised attacks from ultra-conservative campaigners and politicians.

Approximately 13 million people in Europe faced domestic violence last year, according to openDemocracy’s analysis based on current population data and intimate partner violence prevalence rates across 38 countries.

If all of these people lived in one country, its population would be larger than that of Austria or Switzerland. Meanwhile, these numbers are expected to rise even higher this year under coronavirus lockdowns and other ‘stay at home’ measures.

“These days and the weeks ahead are especially dangerous for women,” said Evelyn Regner, chair of the European Parliament’s women’s rights committee. Governments must “tackle this problem consciously” and increase space in women’s shelters, she said – and the European Union should help. 

Domestic violence is “another pandemic that people have long ignored,” said the prominent feminist activist and author Mona Eltahawy, who warned that this neglect is now “playing out in a really horrific way” under COVID-19.

Many countries, she said, were clearly unprepared for coronavirus but they were also “not ready to protect the most vulnerable during this pandemic”.

Broken promises

Over the last decade, dozens of European countries have committed to preventing and combatting all forms of violence against women. 

Since 2011, 34 governments have ratified the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention – which is the world’s first binding treaty to prevent and combat violence against women, from marital rape to female genital mutilation. 

By signing and ratifying the convention, countries agree, among other things, to “provide for the setting-up of appropriate, easily accessible shelters in sufficient numbers”. The Council of Europe has defined this as having shelter spaces for at least one woman and her children for every 10,000 inhabitants. 

Across Europe, more than 60% of such spaces are not available, according to a 2019 report from the NGO Women against Violence Europe (WAVE). 

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Only Luxembourg, Malta, Norway and Slovenia have met this target, along with Liechtenstein, which has signed the convention but not ratified it. 

WAVE looked at the situation in 46 European countries in their network regardless of whether they signed up to these promises, describing how the convention “still sets a critical standard for service provision which all countries should follow".

Italy, the currently the European country hardest hit by COVID-19, was already lacking an estimated 87% of its recommended shelter beds, according to the report. It ratified the treaty in 2013, and has been under a national lockdown since March. 

When women in Ukraine took to the streets on 8 March to mark International Women’s Day, they demanded that their government ratify the convention. This country is lacking approximately 97% of these recommended shelter spaces.

Organised backlash

In March, the first report on the Istanbul Convention’s progress, from the Council of Europe’s group of experts on violence against women (GREVIO), said that services for survivors are “still insufficient”, and funding for them is “volatile”. 

It also described an organised backlash that has limited the convention’s impact, including a “deliberate spreading of false narratives” that “distort” its goals and have held it “hostage to irrational fears and particular domestic political agendas”.

“Traditional values” groups, including in Croatia, have objected to the convention’s definition of gender as “social roles, behaviours, activities and characteristics that a particular society considers appropriate for women and men”.

In 2018, the Slovakian prime minister Robert Fico refused to ratify the convention because he considered it at odds with his country’s constitutional “definition of marriage as a bond between a man and a woman”. 

Bulgaria also withdrew support for the treaty amid growing opposition from political parties, conservative campaign groups and the Orthodox Church, which claimed the treaty “opens the door to moral decay”. 

CitizenGo, the Madrid-based campaign group that has backed far-right politicians and is part of the ultra-conservative World Congress of Families network, also targeted the treaty, demanding that the word “gender” be removed from it entirely.

The UK signed the convention in 2012, but still hasn’t ratified it. Instead, the government has proposed new national legislation, which has been controversial for omitting key Istanbul Convention recommendations to support migrant women to leave abusive relationships without fear of losing their residence status.

Too little, too late

During the current coronavirus emergency, many European countries have taken measures to support domestic violence survivors.

In both Spain and France, for instance, support services for survivors have been classed as “essential”. France is also reportedly using some hotels as shelters.

But Kelsey Mohamed, a member of the UK feminist group Sisters Uncut, and a founder of the COVID-19 Mutual Aid UK network that is helping people who are self-isolating, says that such moves are coming too little, too late. 

In the UK, budgets for shelters have been cut by at least a quarter since 2010, with services for women of colour and migrants hit especially hard by funding cuts. 

As a result, people have long had to support each other without access to state services, says Mohamed, and “there is a lot to learn” from their work, including how to “reach out and listen to survivors” who may have no one else to turn to. 

In Italy, Malvina Monti, who works at the D.i.Re national network of domestic violence shelters, also told openDemocracy that their lack of resources is not new, but that the current crisis has made it more obvious – and even worse.

In addition to beds, she said, “We need masks, sanitisers, gloves, to ensure everyone's safety.” So far, she explained, all of these expenses to avoid the virus spreading inside shelters have come from their volunteers’ pockets.

Countries’ commitments to survivors of violence are “applicable even in times of a pandemic”, insisted Johanna Nelles, executive secretary of the Istanbul Convention body that oversees the monitoring of its implementation.

She told openDemocracy that governments must take further action “to ensure that the impact of lockdowns on women is mitigated as much as possible”. 

The D.i.Re network in Italy stressed that its helplines remain active and that support is available to those who need it. Women’s Aid in the UK said they continue to offer online support from specialised domestic abuse workers, while refuges across the country remain open.

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