Every day, women in Europe fall victim to one of the most flagrant abuses of their human rights – the right to live without violence. It might be the stranger lurking in the back alley: much more likely it is the partner, relative, friend or colleague – for most violence against women is carried out by someone they know.
Crime statistics show that one woman in four has been attacked at some time in their lives and that at least 15% of all European women have experienced domestic violence in a relationship after the age of 16. With domestic violence still very much a hidden crime, the real figure is sure to be higher. Other forms of violence – such as stalking, forced marriage, forced abortions, and forced sterilisation – still pass largely unrecorded.
Conviction rates for any type of violence against women are notoriously low. When police pick up a case, on average there are thirty-five previous incidents to take into account. And law enforcement agents do not always possess the required expertise to produce the evidence necessary to see perpetrators brought to justice. Is it any wonder that convictions are rare?
Governments throughout Europe are recognising the challenge, but the response so far is patchy. Some have now set up refuges for abused women, some have criminalised harassment. Others use restraining orders, counselling or mediation services, or expel the violent partner from the home. Practices differ from country to country, with no clear legislative model – leaving Europe’s women vulnerable to a crime that should have passed into the history books years ago.
The Council of Europe - not only the guardian of human rights, but also of gender equality – has now developed a way for European governments to work together to push back the wave of misogynistic violence. This week we launch an international convention, the first of its kind, to prevent and combat violence against women. It helps governments take action in four main areas: prevention of violence, protection of victims, prosecution of offenders and integrated, holistic and co-ordinated policies. It draws on best practice from all over Europe, and puts it in a framework of international law.
It will protect women from gender based violence anywhere, anytime; out with friends, at work or at school, and at home. Whether they have just moved to Europe or have always lived here, whether they are from poorer or wealthier backgrounds, straight or gay, childless or with a family - women will have an equal level of protection wherever they are in the 47 countries of the Council of Europe.
Governments that ratify the treaty will have to take immediate action to criminalise and prosecute a number of acts that all too often go unpunished: rape, domestic violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, sexual harassment, forced abortion and forced sterilisation. Excuses on grounds of culture, custom, religion or so-called “honour” can no longer be used.
Governments are also asked to set up or fund a range of services, including shelters, around-the-clock helplines, and medical and legal counselling, crucial for those that have had to live through a violent experience, offering medical help, practical help, but also help and support in seeing the perpetrator brought to justice.
One key feature of the new convention is that it recognises the need to see violence against women in the context of inequality between women and men. There is a false belief that equality between women and men has been achieved and that domination of men over women in the private and public spheres is a thing of the past. In fact, one major reason for taking action now is the widening gap between what is on the statute books and what happens in the real world.
The Convention is the next step in a body of work by the Council of Europe that has driven moves to equality since the 1970s. My hope is that not only will it give practical ways to bring millions of women out of the violence trap; it will put equality back on the agenda. I am hopeful that many governments will sign it when it is presented to them in Istanbul this month, and that they will begin to use it - giving real meaning to the work to stop violence in society, for the sake of current and future generations of European women.
Secretary General of the Council of Europe Thorbjørn Jagland