Austerity cuts blamed for UK failure to ratify pan-European convention combatting violence against women

UK signed the convention in 2012 but it still has not been ratified – meaning it is currently in limbo and the UK is not legally bound to follow it

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Monday 18 February 2019 14:38 GMT
The End Violence Against Women Coalition accused the government of ‘serious foot-dragging’ and said it was ‘extremely disappointed’
The End Violence Against Women Coalition accused the government of ‘serious foot-dragging’ and said it was ‘extremely disappointed’ (Getty/iStock)

The UK government has been roundly condemned for failing to ratify a pan-European convention tackling violence against women, almost seven years after signing up to it.

Campaigners say cuts to services for women in abusive relationships and those who have been raped mean the government will not be able to meet the guidelines outlined in the Istanbul Convention.

The End Violence Against Women Coalition accused the government of “serious footdragging” – saying it was “extremely disappointed” and arguing the UK was in the midst of a crisis for victims of sexual violence.

The convention is the most comprehensive legal framework that exists to tackle violence against women and girls, covering domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, female genital mutilation, so-called honour-based violence and forced marriage.

Former prime minister David Cameron signed the convention in 2012 but it still has not been ratified – meaning it is currently in limbo and the UK is not legally bound to follow it.

The UK is one of the last EU members – along with Bulgaria, Hungary and a handful of others – to ratify the convention. Turkey, Albania, Serbia and Romania are among the 33 countries which have ratified it.

Rachel Krys, co-director of End Violence Against Women, said the Istanbul Convention sets out a clear level of provision in terms of both crisis and long-term support but the UK fails to meet it.

She said: “No objective observer would argue that we meet that test. There just isn’t that provision. We are a long way off. Lots of rape crisis centres have closed their waiting lists – they are comically underfunded and underinvested.”

The convention requires countries to set up a sufficient number of shelters to provide women and girls experiencing violence with safe accommodation and to also establish adequate rape crisis or sexual violence referral centres that provide medical and forensic examination, trauma support and counselling for survivors.

It also requires survivors of violence to be able to access legal and psychological counselling, financial assistance, housing, education, training and assistance in finding employment. It necessitates free country-wide 24/7 telephone helplines.

Ms Krys noted there were only 44 rape crisis centres in the UK and insisted this was not enough to comply with the convention. She said there were over 6,000 women on waiting lists for services in the last year, waiting between three and 14 months.

Last December, MPs warned specific support services for victims could cease to exist due to a simultaneous lack of funding and a rise in the number of people needing help.

Ms Kyrs said the government’s delay in ratifying the convention showed a “lack of real commitment” to properly address violence against women and girls.

She said: “Cameron wanted to send a signal the UK cared about women’s rights. We don’t tend to sign conventions like this without ratifying them. Why is it the important convention, that women fought for, which really protects them, that has been put on the shelf?

“The convention is at loggerheads with an ideology that doesn’t think investing in women’s services is a priority. We are living with a mismatch between stated aims and what happens on the ground for women.”

Ms Krys argued the UK would still be in breach of the convention even if was ratified. There is a monitoring body, known as Grevio, which has started producing country-specific reports monitoring how well nations are implementing the convention.

She also said the UK’s policies towards migrant women would also make it incompatible with the Istanbul Convention. The convention marks a milestone for undocumented women and for women with precarious residence status because it expressly forbids discrimination based on migration status, and requires states to make it possible for women whose status is dependent on a violent partner or spouse to gain an independent residence status.

(Council of Europe)

(Council of Europe)

Chiara Capraro, Amnesty International UK’s women’s rights programme manager, said: “The UK government has made out that the new Domestic Abuse Bill will be the final step towards making the UK eligible for ratifying the convention. Yet in its current state, the bill falls short of meeting the convention’s requirement to provide protection to all women without discrimination, as it neglects the specific needs of migrant women and risks further marginalising them.”

The Council of Europe, a human rights organisation made up of 47 member states which drew up the convention, raised alarm bells about how long the UK was taking to ratify it.

Liri Kopaci-Di Michele, the head of the council’s gender equality unit, said: “They are taking a lot of time to ratify – especially in view of UK authorities saying they have everything in place.”

She said it was normal for countries to take some time to ratify – noting the convention was demanding – but added that there was “no practically strong justification” for this length of delay and there was a “recurring question” around the government’s inaction.

“I think it takes a lot of political will and political commitment to ratify,” she said. “The general public might have forgotten about it but it is high on the agenda of women’s rights organisations.”

She said Brexit could be overshadowing the convention and pushing it down the political agenda, but argued Britain would send a strong signal to other countries which have not ratified the convention by doing so.

“The world is witnessing growing attacks on women’s rights – whether that is controlling women’s bodies or limiting services for women who have experienced violence or growing online and offline sexism,” she said. “Every day violence against women makes the news. Ratification been suffering from this backlash. It is very important to rally around the convention.”

At the end of last year, a report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual Violence found sexual assault victims are waiting up to 14 months for counselling because specialist support services are finding it difficult to keep up with “unprecedented demand”. It also found some centres had to close their waiting lists completely due to a shortfall of funding.

Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, an organiser of Women’s March London, said: “It is beggars belief that the UK is dragging its feet on this pivotal issue several years after signing up to the Istanbul Convention.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Our measures to protect women and girls from violence are already some of the most robust in the world. In virtually all respects we comply with, or go further than, the Istanbul Convention requires.

“We have always been clear on our commitment to ratifying the convention. The landmark Domestic Abuse Bill will extend extraterritorial jurisdiction over offences required by the convention which, for England and Wales, is the final legislative step necessary for ratification.

“We have pledged £100m to violence against women and girls’ services between 2016 and 2020. We will soon be publishing a refresh of our VAWG strategy, which will look at further ways we can support victims.”

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