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10 Years of the Istanbul Convention: Combatting Violence Against Women across Europe and Beyond

In 2011, the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, more commonly known as the Istanbul Convention, opened for signature. A decade later and it remains the most far-reaching international legal instrument to set binding obligations to prevent and combat violence against women. 

In the ten years since its inception, how has the Istanbul Convention helped to fight gender-based violence and how can all States be held accountable to their commitments?

What is the Istanbul Convention?

The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence is based on the understanding that violence against women is a form of gender-based violence that is committed against women because they are women.

“The Istanbul Convention is the Council of Europe‘s key international treaty to combat violence against women and domestic violence – and that is its sole objective.”

Council of Europe Secretary-General Marija Pejčinović Burić

The Istanbul Convention sets the standards for preventing violence against women, for protecting women from violence, to prosecute violence if it happens and to bring authorities and civil society together to design policies and implement practices to ensure all this is delivered.

It gives a road map to how to address violence against women in all its forms, including domestic, sexual, and physical violence, forced marriage and sterilization, stalking and sexual harassment, and female genital mutilation. Governments must also ensure there is adequate funding for support services such as rape crisis centers, shelters, and helplines.

The Istanbul Convention applies mostly to women on the basis that violence against women is a consequence of unequal power relations between men and women and discrimination against women. However, it recognizes that men also experience some forms of violence covered, such as domestic violence, although less often and frequently in less severe forms, and therefore encourages its parties to apply its provisions to all victims of domestic violence, including men.

As of 2021, 34 member states of the Council of Europe have ratified the Istanbul Convention, 12 have signed it – along with the institution of the European Union – and it is used as a basis for action by many countries outside Europe as well.

Explore the country monitoring website to learn more about how your country is implementing the Istanbul Convention.

Has It Had An Impact?

“Georgia is one of the first countries in Eurasia to ratify the Istanbul Convention and in the past few years, has made significant steps in fighting violence against women. However, survivors of sexual violence are still very often shamed, stigmatized, and denied justice, and many acts of violence still go unpunished. Time has come to target structural discrimination and ensure justice for this serious violation of women’s rights.”

Tamar Dekanosidze, Eurasia Consultant, Equality Now

Since ratifying the Istanbul Convention, many countries have been working to bring their standards into compliance with the Convention. For example, Equality Now has been working in Georgia in partnership with the Council of Europe – the caretaker of the Convention – and UN Women to improve the response to sexual violence crimes in the country. The Istanbul Convention has been a key tool in advancing important standards to secure better treatment of sexual violence victims and improved access to justice for violations. With our partners, we are developing the Sexual Violence Investigation and Prosecution Manual. In addition to assisting investigators, prosecutors, and judges through the adjudication stages, the manual will also aid human rights lawyers representing the interests of survivors on how to support survivors with strong legal arguments and undertake more effective strategic litigation before local, regional and international fora.

The Istanbul Convention Saves Lives

Just this year both Poland and Turkey announced their plan to withdraw from the treaty. This conservative pushback highlights the very reason the Istanbul Convention is important — it effectively draws attention to structural inequality and what governments need to do to address it to stop violence against women. It is shocking that these governments fear providing such protections for women and that others still have not signed up. This pushback is happening in the context of less respect for women’s rights generally and also a smaller space for civil society voices. However, the message from women’s rights activists is clear. The Istanbul Convention saves lives.

From Turkey to Belgium, to Poland and Denmark, activists and survivors share countless stories of how the treaty has improved national laws and policies that have offered protection and accountability when they were faced with violence.

How can you support the continued implementation of the Istanbul Convention?

The Istanbul Convention came into existence thanks to the tireless activism of women’s rights advocates, survivors, parliamentarians, and feminists across Europe. It is already saving lives, but it can save many more. Working together, we can push for full ratification of the Convention across all of the Council of Europe. Together, we will end gender based violence.

>>>If you are in the UK, learn more about the campaign to urge the UK Government to ratify the Istanbul Convention here.

>>>Read more about how Equality Now is joining with our Young Women for Awareness, Agency, Advocacy and Accountability Initiative (YW4A) partners to mark the 10th anniversary of the Istanbul Convention.

>>>Head to the Council of Europe’s website to learn more about the Istanbul Convention’s 10th Anniversary.