It has been four years since the UK government signed the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence – known as the Istanbul Convention.
But this is a legal half-way house. The UK has failed to complete the process by ratifying it. That means it’s not legally bound to implement the measures it says it supports.
This is a massive failure. The UN estimates one in three women worldwide will experience gender based violence. According to the End Violence against Women Coalition, domestic violence costs England and Wales alone £6 billion per year.
The Istanbul Convention is an effective response. It requires states to address physical violence, including sexual violence and rape and forced marriage. It calls on them to deal with female genital mutilation, sexual harassment, forced abortion and sterilisation, and stalking.
I am director of the LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security, which has gender equality as a core aim. We’re about to launch a website designed to make the international system for tackling violence against women accessible to a non-expert audience.
We’ve embarked on a partnership with the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, and appointed the post-holder, Dubravka Simonovic, as visiting professor in practice.
She joins Jane Connors (Amnesty International), Angelina Jolie Pitt (UNHCR special envoy), former foreign secretary William Hague and Madeleine Rees (Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom). They will all contribute – unpaid – to our public engagement. They will also occasionally inform our students about their work in order to enrich their academic study with practical knowledge and experience.
At the heart of this work is an understanding of the continuum of violence, particularly against women. The Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative – co-founded by Hague and Jolie Pitt – has helped draw wider public attention to the issue of sexual violence in conflict. But the intention and potential was and is broader.
Peer reviewed studies show that gender-based violence is preventable, if laws are changed, public health approaches are scaled up, and stereotypes about what it means to be male and female are transformed. These conclusions underpin the global Sustainable Development Goals, which demand that states ensure gender equality including the eradication of gender-based violence.
A baffling delay
So if there is so much energy going into tackling this problem, why is the UK’s failure to ratify the Istanbul Convention so important?
The first reason is that the convention calls on states to produce a national policy of action and an official body to coordinate the work. It requires data to be collected to identify needs and it requires funding for all this to happen.
The Istanbul Convention also requires states parties to:
Take the necessary steps to include teaching material on issues such as equality between women and men, non-stereotyped gender roles, mutual respect, non-violent conflict resolution in interpersonal relationships, gender-based violence and the right to personal integrity … at all levels of education.
This would involve comprehensive education to instil confidence in young people to make informed, responsible and healthy decisions about their sexual behaviour. This needs to happen now: a 2010 poll indicated that one in three girls has experienced unwanted sexual touching at a UK school.
State parties to the Istanbul Convention must also report on how the treaty is being implemented to a committee of experts.
Progress has been made in seeing these subjects in the broader context of gender-based violence and gender equality. A House of Lords committee recently looked into sexual violence as a war crime and called on the government to ratify the Istanbul Convention “at the earliest opportunity”.
It is therefore baffling that the government has stopped short of making the most important step – why do so much only to fail to enshrine this good will in law? This is known to be the best approach to prevent violence against women and girls, so why doesn’t the UK go all the way?
When challenged last year on the failure to ratify the convention, the government responded that it complied with the majority of the provisions. But without accepting the core responsibilities – to bring a nation wide, funded, comprehensive approach to prevention and access to justice – women and girls in the UK are always going to be sold short.
Given the scandalous situation of gender-based violence, it is a false economy of human suffering not to ratify the Istanbul Convention.