Tackling the root causes that contribute and perpetuate violence against women in a more comprehensive and legally-binding way is needed if such violence is ever to be successfully curtailed in Europe and beyond, according to the Council of Europe (CoE).
A new CoE Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence aims to not simply raise awareness of the different facets of domestic violence, but also to create judicial understanding and prosecuting service expertise in its member states, explains Johanna Nelles, from the CoE’s Directorate General for Human Rights and Legal Affairs. It aims at “zero tolerance” for violence against women.
The Convention, which began its ratification process on 11 May, needs to be fully ratified by ten signatories for it to be legally-binding. At present, thirteen member states have signed up to the Convention, but any final ratification is not expected until next year. The thirteen signatories, an indication of political will, are Austria, Finland, France, FYROM, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Luxembourg, Montenegro, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden.
According to Nelles, the driving force behind the new Convention, which came out of an initial set of recommendations published in 2002 was the frustration that no legally-binding recommendations on violence against women often exist in member states, or, where they do, legal standards are not always implemented to the fullest.
Conservative figures currently estimate that in Europe, between one-fifth and one-quarter of all women have experienced some form of physical violence at least once during their adult lives, with low conviction rates for perpetrators, as well as insufficient support systems for victims adding to the drive to get legally-binding standards in place, adds Nelles.
The Convention, which equates violence against women with a human rights violation, has, for the first time, introduced an international definition of “gender”. As a document that is aimed primarily at violence against women, the Convention covers violence against women and girls from all backgrounds, regardless of age, race, religion, sexual orientation, social origin or migrant status. But while it tackles gender-specific violence, such as female genital mutilation and forced abortion, it also covers gender-neutral domestic violence, such as that affecting men, children and the elderly.
One of the strongest aspects of the Convention is that it not only seeks to ensure the criminalisation of the most serious forms of violence against women and domestic violence, but also that it recognises new criminal offences relating to psychological and sexual violence, forced marriage, stalking, female genital mutilation, forced abortion or sterilisation and sexual harassment, the latter of which has often been relegated to a labour law issue.
The ultimate aim of the Convention, says, Nelles, is to see a vast improvement in judicial services across member states, as well as effective investigations into cases of violence against women and domestic violence and prosecuting services building up the expertise required for more consistent standards in prosecutions.
While some member states have been slow to sign up to the Convention, some, like Italy, are waiting for translated versions, so far there have been no outright rejections, although objections to individual articles are said to exist.
However, while Nelles admits that the final ratification process can be a long one, with budget implications and other practical and legal considerations, she foresees that the Convention will finally be ratified by the required ten member states sometime next year.