Safe from fear, safe from violence - Celebrating the entry into force of the Istanbul Convention

Speech by FRA Director at a conference to celebrate the entry into force of the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe’s convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

Madam Speaker, Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to have been asked to speak here at what – as the title of the conference suggests – really is a celebration. And as is customary at a celebration, I would like to begin by congratulating the Council of Europe on its vision, hard work and, not least, powers of persuasion, in reaching the point we have today, with the ratification of the Istanbul Convention and its entry into force.

There is a lot that can be said about the Istanbul Convention, and I will mention just a few points. To begin with, the Convention offers an entire region legally binding standards for the first time, containing a comprehensive framework for effective policies to combat violence against women. I would also like to highlight just three areas covered by the Convention that I will later come back to:

  1. It takes a multi-level approach to combating violence against women.
  2. It focuses not just on cure but also on prevention.
  3. It includes men and boys as crucial ‘ingredients’ in findings ways forward and finding solutions.

These and many other provisions in the Convention will in turn help towards the change in mentality we need in order to fight violence against women effectively and lastingly.

Certain manifestations of violence against women – such as female genital mutilation or forced marriages – predominantly have an impact on particular groups of the population and warrant specific responses. But the Istanbul Convention helps us to recognise that these are just pieces of the puzzle, and that violence against women is far more widespread.

That the Convention has now been ratified by the prerequisite number of countries to enter into force is a positive sign that the facts have been taken on board in many places and action is being taken. To take just two positive examples from EU Member States that have already ratified:

  1. Here in Italy, a number of important measures for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse have been introduced, including a stipulation that investigations into alleged crimes must be concluded within one year of reporting. This is very important.
  2. In Portugal, steps are being taken to strengthen support for victims of sexual violence by setting up rape crisis centres for the first time.

Both of these are very practical and very necessary steps.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I do not want to detract from the atmosphere of celebration. However, there is definitely also still a lot to be done in the current situation. Please allow me therefore to cite a few figures from the survey that the Fundamental Rights Agency released earlier this year. In this survey we interviewed 42,000 women face-to-face about their experiences of violence. And many of these 42,000 interviews tell dreadful histories of suffering that have continued for weeks, months or even years. These figures demonstrate what a long path we still have ahead of us, and also just how necessary it is for the ratification process of the Istanbul Convention to continue.

Let me just give you a few examples:

- An estimated 13 million women in the EU were victims of physical violence in the course of the 12 months prior to our survey.

- An estimated 1.5 million women in the EU were raped in the course of those 12 months. That’s equivalent to the entire population of the city of Vienna.

These figures are shocking. And so too are other areas we examined that are only beginning to be recognised as forms of violence against women.

One of the newest and most insidious of these is cyberharassment, which for a long time was not really regarded as significant. Indeed, I am often astonished that this widespread problem is still belittled as somehow “not serious”. This, of course, completely misses the point. Firstly, what starts as harassment can certainly become a physical attack at a later stage. But more importantly, this attitude ignores the long-term psychological scars that can be left by harassment and hatred spread by social media, in internet chatrooms or via mobile phones, particularly on young women.

Here again let me quote a figure from our survey:

- A fifth of women between the ages of 18 and 29 have experienced cyberharassment since the age of 15.

While social media companies were relatively quick to address issues of racism or antisemitism on their platforms, they have dragged their feet over violence and hate against women. This needs to change.

However, it is not only the number of women who have been victims of gender-based violence or cyberharassment that is alarming. It is also the debilitating fear of violence. More than half of women in the EU avoid certain places or situations for fear of being physically or sexually assaulted.

Now, one could say that in order to combat violence against women, we need to ensure women are empowered to leave the home, to work, to live their own lives on their own terms. But first of all, we still face enormous challenges on the path to empowerment. And secondly, even after we have reached the stage at which women are empowered, they are by no means free from discrimination or harassment.

This becomes clear from the response to a very specific question we asked in our survey, which showed that violence against women cuts across all social and all professional groups. Nobody can say “we’re off the hook”.

Ladies and gentlemen,
The text of the Istanbul Convention allows us to take steps on all these issues. But in order to move forward, we will have to look very hard at the issue of implementation.

Let me highlight two particular activities that must be undertaken.

Firstly, as I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, a multi-agency approach that establishes and enhances cooperation between the police, employers, doctors and other health professionals, as well as internet service providers, is vital.

Indeed, our survey findings show that an overwhelming majority of women in the EU would be happy for doctors to ask routinely whether certain injuries have been caused by violence. There’s no fear of being addressed on this. Such conversations between doctors and patients, as well as the broader cooperation between medical and other services, could help to remove the taboos still surrounding violence against women and bring the issue out into the open. Where it belongs.

Secondly, the issue of violence against women is also very much one of gender equality – or rather inequality. The Convention recognises the need for legislation and policies that promote equality.

It is interesting in this regard to look at FRA’s survey results in conjunction with the Gender Equality Index that our sister agency, the European Institute for Gender Equality, has developed. There it can be seen that EU countries scoring higher on the index also tend to have a higher prevalence of physical or sexual violence against women. With traditional models of gender having been challenged over the past decades, we need a debate about how to help men to find new roles in society, as well as in their own families. I come from Denmark myself, which has a high level of gender equality and at the same time scores the worst in our survey of violence against women. And when I speak to my friends or see my sons, I do believe we need to discuss what’s going on, what our roles are.

So the role of men, not just as perpetrators of violence against women but also in society more broadly, obviously needs to be explored in more detail. Above all we need a public debate stressing that hassling, harassing or hitting women is NOT attractive, is NOT manly and is NOT acceptable.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Istanbul Convention gives us the framework we so desperately needed to address these issues. So let us celebrate today. But let us also agree to meet for another celebration in five or 10 years from now, when we can hopefully say -

  • there are fewer offences against women
  • cyberhate has diminished
  • more men and boys have found an identity in which there is no room and no necessity for violence against women.

Thank you for your attention.

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