Laws regarding violence against women, act as a moral compass for the population

To promote gender equality, the EU has made the Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025, where the Istanbul Convention is also mentioned. Photo by Claudio Centonze.

Rather than punishing more people, the objectives of implementing laws regarding gender-based violence can provide moral guidelines to the people and move culture forward to clearly state what is right and wrong, says Mette Marie Yde, Vice President of Danner Women’s Shelter in Denmark.

By Alberte Sørensen, Stine Skovgaard & Sofie Bladt

The European Union and its 27 member countries have signed the Istanbul Convention, which sets to prevent and combat violence against women. Even though the EU signed the convention in 2017, and most EU countries have implemented the convention in the years 2011-2015, six countries have yet to ratify.

“The EU does not have the judicial mandate to sanction countries that have yet to ratify the Istanbul Convention, so really all we can do is point fingers and call out countries” says Karen Melchior, member of the European Parliament and of the Renew Europe Group. She is a part of the Parliament Committee on women’s rights and gender equality, called FEMM.

It is up to the individual countries to ratify the convention and put it into force, and there are numerous reasons as to why countries have not ratified yet. In Lithuania there has been shared false information and misinterpretations of the Istanbul Convention in some segments of the public, says Johanna Nelles, Executive Secretary of the Istanbul Convention in the Council of Europe.

“There are some stumbling blocks that have been appearing in several countries that have not yet ratified. In Lithuania these revolve around the definition of “gender” and that the Istanbul Convention contains false representation on what the convention would require national authorities to do, and for national legislation to be amended. It does nothing to this extent. The Istanbul convention is about protecting victims of all forms of violence against women,” says Nelles.

Uncertain if domestic violence should be punishable by law

A Eurobarometer on gender-based violence from 2016 shows that 18 percent of the respondents across the EU, do not think trying to control a partner by preventing them from seeing and contacting family and friends, denying them money or confiscating mobile phones or official documents should be punishable by law. This number, however, is 35 percent in Lithuania, putting them to the top of the list.

31 percent of Lithuanians think that forcing a partner to have sex should not be against the law, making Lithuania the only country in the EU where more than a quarter of the population agrees on this.

Mette Marie Yde explains that the violence often escalates over time, evolving from psychological to physical or sexual violence. The first signs of domestic violence might be isolation from relatives and friends as well as controlling personal papers or possessions.

“The women at the shelter often struggle to set boundaries for themselves,” she says and continues: “An unequal relationship might develop into a violent one, where the one partner dominates the other.”

Legislation affects the mindset

As the Eurobarometer shows, the Lithuanians are far behind the EU-average in acknowledging psychological and sexual violence as a matter for the courts. But Mette Marie Yde suggests that changing the legislation might be an important step to change the general opinion like it has in Denmark:

“If you look at the law regarding corporal punishment, it was common and accepted to hit your children back then. If you ask the question now, 22 years later, there are far less people who use violence and more people think it is wrong to hit your children,” says Yde.

She also points out that this is an example of a law that has not effectively criminalized a lot of perpetrators. But it has become a part of the way society works and it states that this is not acceptable behaviour. So it is more about awareness and debate rather than criminal punishment.

In April last year psychological violence became punishable by law in Denmark. Yde hopes this will mean less people commit psychological violence in the long run because there is a public awareness and debate about it.

“Gender” is an obstacle for Lithuanian ratification
Implementing the Istanbul Convention is a two-step process for both the EU and the member countries. First signing it, which is a declaration of political will to move towards ratification and then secondly, ratification. The latter has yet to happen in Lithuania, and though much work has been done and a bill on ratification has been prepared, it has not made its way to parliament yet.

The understanding and definitions of gender can also have an impact on the countries’ willingness to ratify. In Lithuania critics of the convention points that ratifying the bill would introduce a third sex, amongst other things.

“The misrepresentation and the myths around the Istanbul Convention make it out to be a document that requires for example same sex marriage or the introduction of a third sex. The convention does nothing to this extend – it really helps to find ways to better prevent violence against women and protect the victims and make sure that there is no opportunity for perpetrators,” says Johanna Nelles.

The discussion around gender as a social construct rather than only a biological factor also affects the possibility to introduce and implement the Istanbul Convention. In very religious and conservative societies, for example Lithuania, there has been some pushback regarding the convention as religious and conservative groups see the convention as a threat rather than a tool to keep women safe, says Johanna Nelles.

COVID-19 puts the domestic violence on the EU agenda

During the COVID-19 crisis several countries have anticipated to see an increase in domestic violence. Due to the lockdown in most countries around Europe, people are forced to stay home, which has created tension and angst in many people, causing violence to escalate.

While the EU member states take different initiatives to protect the victims during the current crisis, parliament member Karen Melchior and the rest of the Renew Europe FEMM group has sent an open letter to the EU Commission and The European Council asking them to take action on EU level.

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