European governments under pressure to fully address severity of violence against women

Jennifer VenisFriday 12 November 2021

Governments across Europe are being called upon to take gender-based violence as seriously as terrorism.

In the UK, Her Majesty’s Inspectorates Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services and the Crown Prosecution Service investigated police responses to violence against women and girls, releasing their final report in September. The report describes an ‘epidemic’ of such crimes and calls for their higher prioritisation by forces nationwide, suggesting that ‘ways of working should be informed by other areas of policing, including serious and organised crime and counter-terrorism, in terms of both prioritisation and resource’.

The report lambasts ‘indefensible’ record low conviction rates for sexual violence, as only 1.4 per cent of rapes reported in 2019/2020 resulted in a suspect being charged as of April 2020, while rape victims reported feeling like they were the ones being investigated.

The report was commissioned by the Home Secretary after the murder of a woman by a serving Metropolitan police officer in March, which significantly increased public demand for radical action on gender-based violence.

On 30 September, Wayne Couzens was given a rare whole-life sentence for the abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard in London in March, for which he used his official police ID to falsely arrest Everard. The judge, Lord Justice Fulford, deemed the abuse of a police officer’s role to be as serious as a terrorist killing, arguing ‘all of these situations attack different aspects of the fundamental underpinnings of our democratic way of life’.

The Court of Appeal confirmed in late October that Couzens has launched an appeal seeking to reduce his sentence.

In early October, the Home Office commissioned an inquiry into Couzens’ conduct and any ‘missed opportunities’ that may have implications for wider policing, but has also sought to tackle the prevalence of gender-based violence in the UK – where on average a woman is killed by a man every three days – more broadly.

Violence is a structural problem and should be treated as such also in the political and public discourses

Anne Ramberg
Co-Chair, IBA’s Human Rights Institute

In June, the government released the findings of its two-year end-to-end rape review, which blames the decline in charges and prosecutions on a range of factors, from increased digital data requests and a lack of specialist resources to ‘strained relationships between different parts of the criminal justice system’.

Ministers, ‘deeply ashamed’ of the findings, promise a ‘conscious reversal of the trends of the past five years’ through initiatives intended to improve access to justice. The government followed up with its 2021 Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy, which promises increased support for survivors, increased prosecutions and the prioritisation of prevention. But women’s groups have expressed concern about some measures being underfunded, and the strategy being limited in scope. The End Violence Against Women Coalition, for example, lamented the missed opportunity for the government to ratify the Council of Europe’s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (the ‘Istanbul Convention’). Meanwhile, in September, the European Parliament passed a legislative initiative demanding targeted legislation and policies to address all forms of gender-based discrimination using the standards of the Convention.

It calls for online and offline gender-based violence to be treated as a ‘particularly serious crime with a cross-border dimension’ as a new area of crime under Article 83(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, alongside trafficking and terrorism.

‘Gender-based violence is really normalised. So of course, it would make a difference to give gender-based violence the same priority level as terrorism,’ says Charlotte Gunka, speaking in her personal capacity as former Co-Chair of the IBA Crimes Against Women Subcommittee.

But she stresses that should the initiative be taken up and implemented, policy announcements must be accompanied by dedicated funding to ensure they can be enforced. ‘Making strategies is very nice, but they have been doing this for years, and nothing has changed’, she adds.

Moreover, support for the Convention is waning in some parts of Europe. In June, Turkey became the first country to formally withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. Anne Ramberg, Co-Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute, laments the withdrawal, noting that the Convention ‘is the most comprehensive convention in its field’ and the first legally binding instrument on violence against women in Europe.

In July 2020, Poland also announced its intention to withdraw from the Convention, with the Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro calling the Convention ‘a feminist creation justifying gay ideology’. In Turkey, ministers have made similar claims to justify withdrawing, suggesting the Convention harms traditional family values and arguing that the country’s remaining national laws are sufficient to protect women.

Ramberg tells Global Insight that international and regional protections have a stronger impact on governments and civil society. She says that ‘the issue of violence should not be seen as [a] private or national matter but has clear public or international dimensions. Violence is a structural problem and should be treated as such also in the political and public discourses.’ This summer, the Generation Equality Forum, convened by UN Women, sought to address issues of funding and political will by bringing together governments, corporations and civil society to create a five-year roadmap towards gender equality, which has been backed by $40bn of investments. This Global Acceleration Plan covers a variety of aspects of gender inequality, including gender-based violence, with work to culminate in 2026.

Goals include progressively increasing international funding by 50 per cent to women’s rights organisations, activists and movements, and scaling up both survivor-led services for survivors of gender-based violence and the implementation of prevention strategies by institutions and organisations.

The French Ambassador and Secretary-General of the Forum, Delphine O, said the Forum ‘reversed the priorities on the international agenda and made gender equality, for too long underestimated, a long-term issue for the international community, along with climate, education and health’.

But while Gunka believes the measures are important and the synergy between civil society, government, the public sector and the private sector is essential, she worries that in the current context of Covid-19, these promises may fall away. ‘It will not be the priority for the states, because everyone is recovering the economy and so on from the pandemic,’ she says. ‘That’s my only worry.’

Image: London, 13 March 2021 - placards at the vigil for Sarah Everard in Clapham Common.

​​​​​​​Vincenzo Lullo / Shutterstock.com

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