Out of the shadows: facing up to violence against women

Violence against women is always under-recorded, usually under-recognised and often spuriously justified by "culture" or "tradition". A new convention seeks a step change in Europe.

Panos Kakaviatos
4 August 2014
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A young woman living in Sweden was taken to Iraq by family members to be forced to marry. Although she left the marriage and returned to Sweden, she was not safe. In April 2012, according to news reports, her brother stabbed her 100 times with two knives and scissors. A Swedish court called the murder an “honour” killing, in retaliation for her leaving the marriage.

Women are killed by gender-related violence in Europe every day. As the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights reported last week, statistics from 2013 alone indicate that domestic violence claimed the lives of 121 women in France, 134 in Italy, 37 in Portugal, 54 in Spain and 143 in the United Kingdom. In Azerbaijan 83 women were killed and 98 committed suicide following domestic violence, while data collected by Turkish media reported at least 214 women killed by men last year, mainly because of domestic violence—and often despite these women having asked the authorities for protection.

Moreover, many victims do not report abuse, often out of fear of being hurt again or stigmatised, as a nurse who works at a hospital in Offenburg, near the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, told me.  

But there is some hope on the horizon. On 1 August, the world's most far-reaching treaty on combating violence against women—from marital rape to female genital mutilation—entered into force in 11 European states* and it will come into force in France, Malta and Sweden in November.


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The treaty breaks new ground in obliging governments which have ratified it to introduce new laws where they do not exist—laws which criminalise acts like “honour” killings, for example, thereby removing barriers to prosecuting offenders. Governments must ensure that legal entities reject claims of “culture”, “tradition” or "honour" as justification for psychological or physical abuse, including rape, stalking, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, forced abortion and forced sterilisation.

The treaty obliges governments to investigate allegations of violence against women. For example, law-enforcement agencies must respond to calls for help, collect evidence and assess the risk of further violence to victims. It requires governments to respect the rights of victims and avoid secondary victimisation while they carry out judicial proceedings.


The convention, also known as the “Istanbul Convention” because it was opened for signature there over three years ago, focuses on preventing violence against women to save lives and reduce human suffering. Governments which agree to be bound by it must:

  • train professionals who have close contact with victims,
  • run periodic awareness-raising campaigns,
  • include gender equality and non-violent conflict resolution in teaching materials,
  • establish treatment programmes for perpetrators of domestic violence and sex offenders,
  • work closely with non-governmental organisations and
  • call on the media and the private sector to counter gender stereotypes and promote mutual respect.

    The convention obliges states-party to take action to provide information, help and protection to all victims, regardless of social status, languages spoken or physical location. It requires:

  • a law-enforcement power to remove the perpetrator from the home;
  • access to clear and concise information in a language the victim understands;
  • accessible shelters in sufficient numbers and adequate geographical distribution to help women from a wide range of social circumstances;
  • state-wide, 24-hour telephone helplines, free of charge, supplying immediate expert advice, and
  • rape-crisis or sexual-violence referral centres—extremely rare in Europe—to provide immediate medical counselling, trauma care and forensic services.

    Setting up such support services for victims is only the beginning of the solution. This convention stipulates that victims be informed of their rights and know where and how to get help.


    Often confused with the European Union, the larger (47-member) and more longstanding (since 1949) Council of Europe is a convention-based organisation which promotes human rights, the rule of law and democracy. Its landmark convention is the European Convention of Human Rights, which led to the creation of the European Court of Human Rights.

    Several essential Council of Europe conventions which followed include “monitoring mechanisms”, such as the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, which regularly reports on conditions in prisons and places of detention (based on the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment). In this vein, the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence will include a monitoring procedure: ratification alone is not enough.

    According to a recent analysis of legislation and practice in combating violence against women by Council of Europe member states, governments have already adopted promising initiatives and measures which reflect convention guidelines. And with the help of NGOs, like Human Rights Watch, convention guidelines are publicised and governments face pressure from civil society to make changes for the better.

    But the 80-page analysis, published by the Council of Europe’s Gender Equality Commission, also points to gaps and shortcomings which will require effective monitoring.  A Turkish news report indicates that maintaining the standards of the convention will be a daunting challenge there, even though Turkey has ratified it. Indeed, based on the Council of Europe’s detailed analysis, such challenges lie ahead for all 47 Council of Europe member states—from Cyprus, where there are fewer than one third of the number of shelter beds recommended, to Hungary, where police do not regularly receive appropriate specific initial training on violence against women, prevention and intervention. Switzerland has not introduced a legal basis for competent authorities to issue emergency barring orders. In Latvia and Ukraine, not all sexual acts against non-consenting persons are a criminal offence. Much work lies ahead for these and other member states.

    Urging remaining members to sign and ratify the convention, in a video message the secretary general, Thorbjørn Jagland, said: “One of the great strengths of the convention is that it creates an independent group of experts who will report on how governments comply with its standards.” The group, which is expected to meet in the first trimester of 2015, will invite national parliaments to participate in monitoring procedures and will gather additional information from NGOs. Should a particular issue require attention, the monitoring group could travel to the country in question for an inquiry.

    Although too late to help that young woman who was murdered in Sweden, the Council of Europe’s treaty will assist many women and their families who risk facing future violence. The convention will improve prevention and protection and should lead to more investigations, prosecutions and convictions of perpetrators of violence.

    *As of this writing, 14 governments have ratified the treaty: Albania, Andorra, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Denmark, France, Italy, Malta, Montenegro, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, Sweden and Turkey; another 22 have signed. Although the treaty is open to all countries in the world, it will be important to focus on Council of Europe member states especially since 11 have neither signed nor ratified the convention: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Ireland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, the Republic of Moldova and the Russian Federation.

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