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‘Gender ideology’ fears hinder Europe’s pact on violence against women | The World Weekly

It is no secret that violence against women is far from disappearing. In Europe, it is estimated that 50 women each week are murdered by a partner or ex-partner. Many agree there is a long way to go in ensuring that victims feel safe reporting offences and that cases have a fair chance of resulting in conviction.

Yet even the option to go to the authorities is a luxury not afforded to everyone in the region. Campaigners believe many countries in Europe and the surrounding region still lack a number of fundamental legal provisions for tackling abuse, prompting the international community to take action.

One of the most significant of these efforts today is the Istanbul Convention, a treaty set up by the Council of Europe in 2011 binding governments to a number of commitments aimed at eradicating violence against women and domestic violence.

Countries signing the convention commit themselves to criminalising a number of offences including psychological, sexual and physical violence and forced marriage, and making sexual harassment subject to “criminal or other legal sanctions”. Out of 46 countries to have signed the treaty, however, only 28 have made good on their promises and ratified it.

Some of these are dragging their feet for more technical reasons. The UK, for example, already complies with most aspects of the treaty, but lacks measures for prosecuting British citizens for abuses committed overseas, which remain in the drafting stages.

Ireland, meanwhile, only recently passed a bill criminalising psychological abuse and “coercive control” within a relationship, to be enacted early this year.

In other countries, however, the convention has proved far more controversial. Its critics have not taken issue with its decrees on outright violence. Rather, many see it as an attempt to impose ‘progressive’ ideas about gender and erode so-called traditional societies.

Much of the controversy surrounds the treaty’s reference to “gender” as a social construct, defining it as “social roles, behaviours, activities and characteristics that a particular society considers appropriate for women and men”. The demand that “teaching material on issues such as equality between women and men [and] non-stereotyped gender roles” be included in formal education has provoked cries of a ‘Trojan Horse’ of foreign values.

Nowhere in Europe has this debate raged more fiercely than in Bulgaria, where the government has dropped its efforts to ratify the treaty after a swell of opposition from across the political spectrum and many religious leaders.

Members of the ruling centre-right GERB party joined forces with their junior coalition partners, the far-right United Patriots, and the main opposition Socialist Party to bring down the ratification bid.

The United Patriots had earlier published a statement - backed by an open letter signed by various civil and religious organisations - claiming that, through the convention, “international lobbies are pushing Bulgaria to legalise the ‘third gender’” and to “introduc[e] school programmes for studying homosexuality and transvestism and creating opportunities for enforcing same-sex marriages”.

The Socialist party said it could not accept the eradication of “prejudices, customs, traditions and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority of women or on stereotyped roles for women and men”.

The West’s Trojan Horse?

Similar concerns over what critics call “gender ideology” have been echoed across many of the more socially conservative, religious countries covered by the treaty.

“There is a worrying trend in some of the Council of Europe member states (Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine) of misrepresenting the aims of the Istanbul Convention,” says Feride Acar, president of GREVIO, the independent expert body responsible for monitoring the implementation.

“The Istanbul Convention does not promote homosexuality just as it does not promote gay marriage or the introduction of a third gender,” she told The World Weekly.

In Croatia, the treaty remains unratified, despite once enjoying widespread support from across the political spectrum. President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović called for ratification as a candidate in 2014, but recently ruled out implementing any parts of the treaty which cause “public controversy”.

In Latvia, meanwhile, the majority of the Istanbul Convention’s requirements have been implemented, but the bill to ratify it is stuck in Parliament. The Greens and Farmers Union party, part of the ruling coalition, dropped its support after claiming last month that the archbishop of the Catholic Church persuaded it against the move.

“It is very concerning that propaganda [from religious groups] is blocking the urgent change we need to make to eradicate violence against women,” says Rosa Lograr, president of Women Against Violence Europe, who calls on church leaders including Pope Francis to demand an end to the criticism.

While some of the treaty’s signatories stand accused of failing to live up to their promises, other countries have made no pretense of even adhering to its principles.

In Russia and Azerbaijan, the last two Council of Europe members not to have signed the convention, legal recourse for victims is scant at best, withering at worst.

In early 2017, Russia decriminalised some forms of domestic violence after a series of amendments sailed through the Parliament and were approved by President Vladimir Putin. Beatings of spouses or children which result in bruising or bleeding but not broken bones are now punishable by up to 15 days in prison or a fine of between 5 and 30,000 rubles ($529), offences which previously carried a prison sentence of up to two years.

In the eyes of its critics, Russia’s new law is a spine-chilling example of how a softer touch from the state can make domestic abuse hit harder. In the weeks after the change, the mayor of Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, said daily reports of domestic violence had more than doubled.

“People got the impression that before it wasn’t allowed, but now it is,” Yevgeny Roizman, a Putin critic, told Russian media.

In Azerbaijan, the law allows for the criminal prosecution of domestic violence, but critics argue that women are being severely let down in practice. The law reduces the state’s role in such issues as a duty to “assist in normalisation of relations between parties and resumption of family affairs”, which a 2014 report by the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women described as “privileging mediation and reconciliation over the protection of women”.

Campaigners say the mediation process rarely considers the victim’s opinion on whether reconciliation has been achieved or their safety guaranteed. An Oxfam report in 2015 found that, since adoption of domestic violence prevention laws in 2010, only four protection orders had been issued.

Deadly indifference

Yet for all its ambitions, there are signs that the treaty is failing to achieve its goals even in countries where it has come into force.

In Turkey, which became the first country to ratify the convention in 2012, activists have accused the government of lacking the will to properly implement it. According to women’s rights NGO, the We Will Stop Femicide Platform, legal loopholes and indifference from the authorities mean the law on gendered violence is not being properly upheld.

The convention demands that those who ask for protection from violence receive it. Yet the We Will Stop Femicide Platform has claimed refuge centres try to turn away victims, and police sometimes do not step in to prevent ongoing violence when called out on domestic abuse reports. Five women under police protection were murdered in 2016, according to its statistics, and 10 the previous year. Of 108 court cases involving violence against women the group monitored in early 2017, half ended with reduced sentences due to “good behaviour”.

Antipathy towards the treaty’s principles appears to run to the highest rungs of power.

This week, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lamented the government’s 2004 decision to drop an attempt to criminalise adultery and extra-marital sex in order to defuse tensions with the EU during accession talks at the time, suggesting it could come back on the table.

“This society holds a different status in terms of its moral values,” Mr. Erdoğan said at a parliamentary meeting of the ruling party in Ankara on February 20.

Many would describe President Erdoğan’s Turkey as one of the most culturally distant relatives in the fractious community of the Council of Europe. But his comments would likely ring true for a great many of the politicians fighting back against the Istanbul Convention.

For the millions of women who continue to suffer without the protections that the treaty was supposed to guarantee them, however, there is little time to worry about reconciling values.

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