What about Istanbul? The EU’s role in fighting gender-based violence within and outside the Union

09 June 2023 /

9 min

On the 8th of March 2022, the European Commission proposed a new directive on combating violence against women and domestic violence. The proposal aims to strengthen the protection of victims of gender-based violence in the EU and to ensure that the standards of the Istanbul Convention are implemented in all Member States. The parliament voted for the EU’s ratification of the Istanbul convention on the 10th of May 2023 after heated debates, and the ball is now in between the hands of the Council of the EU. In practice, the Istanbul convention is an international treaty from the Council of Europe aimed at preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. As gender-based violence is a widespread problem that affects millions of women and girls around the world, the EU has developed a set of frameworks aiming at protecting women both inside the Union but also in its foreign action. However, voices have risen that the Union as a norm promoter, is not doing enough in the matter. This article will therefore explore Brussels’ role in protecting women from gender-based violence within and outside the Union.

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Gender-based violence in the European Union, will the Istanbul Convention be enough?

When it comes to addressing and tackling gender-based violence, the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention is among the most protective legal tools that exist (as it includes physical, sexual, psychological, and economic violence, as well as stalking, harassment, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation). However, this treaty, signed in 2017 by the EU, is not in force everywhere in the Union: 21 Member States have ratified it so far, with six countries that still have to ratify and implement it (Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, and Bulgaria). Therefore, this delay in ratification leads to the impossibility, for the time being, for the EU to ratify the convention. This situation has pushed different institutions, in particular the European Parliament and the Commission, to issue several calls to governments to ratify the document. However, the situation has not developed much through the years, which resulted in the Commission issuing in 2022 a proposal of a directive essentially incorporating the main provisions of the Convention in order to make them legally binding across the Union, and the Parliament to adopt the proposal in May 2023. This comes at a particularly sensitive political time, when women’s rights are being questioned in different Member States, particularly in Poland, with the European institutions being powerless to effectively address the issue.

The proposed directive has made slow progress in the EU legislative process. Accordingly, stakeholders have been rather critical, calling the directive an important step but failing at addressing key topics on Gender-Based violence, such as the characterisation of feminicide as a criminal offence or strong legislation on sexual exploitation of women and girls. However, the Commission is still calling for its rapid adoption as well as for the ratification of the convention by the EU. Motivated by the fact that while all Member States address violence against women and domestic violence in their legislations, scope and implementation vary greatly across the bloc. According to the Commission, this underlines the pressing need for specific legal instruments at EU level.

In parallel, it is interesting to analyse what other instruments has the EU developed on addressing gender-based violence. The ‘EU gender equality strategy 2020-2025’ takes place as the central piece of the effort from the EU to combat gender-based violence, with the Commission President, Ursula Von Der Leyen, declaring that “With the Gender Equality Strategy, we are pushing for more and faster progress to promote equality between men and women.”. This document, which presents policy objectives and actions, does address gender-based violence extensively. It has led to other key documents and roadmaps in fighting gender-based violence, on both technical (launch of an EU-wide survey coordinated by Eurostat, creation of an EU network on the prevention of Gender based-violence) and political issues (Victims’ Rights strategy, additional measures to combat specific forms of gender-based violence, in particular abuse and sexual harassment as well as female genital mutilation).

These initiatives seem to show that EU policymakers are heading in a direction of willingness to act on gender-based violence, from access to relevant and up-to-date data to the criminalisation of these acts. However, the question remains on whether that will be enough to effectively achieve the elimination of gender-based violence in the Union, even after a potential union-wide ratification of the Istanbul Convention or the implementation of the Directive on combating violence against women and domestic violence? Several stakeholders are arguing that much more assertive, comprehensive, and cross-cutting political attention to gender-based violence is necessary to achieve conclusive results on the matter.

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The European Union’s foreign action on Gender-Based-Violence, a norm promoter?

The EU through its external action is praising itself for being a normative power, or at least a norm promoter towards other regions of the world. It would therefore be interesting to analyse the concrete action of the European External Action Service (EEAS) regarding gender-based violence towards third countries, in addition to the frameworks and programs designed towards combating gender-based violence around the world.

Further than the Istanbul Convention, which takes part in the EU’s action towards third countries members of the Council of Europe, the EU has implemented a range of policies and initiatives to address gender-based violence. This includes, among others, the EU Action Plan on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (also known as the Gender action plan III 2021-2025), and the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative. These initiatives set out a series of actions for EU institutions and Member States to take to address gender-based violence in their foreign policy approach, including strengthening legal frameworks, improving support services for victims, and addressing the root causes of gender inequality.

However, the EEAS faces several challenges in promoting gender equality in its foreign policy. One of the main challenges appears to be the lack of coherence in different policy areas. If the idea of ‘feminist diplomacy’ appears important to European policymakers in carrying out their actions, it seems to lack a comprehensive and systematic approach to gender-based violence in European foreign action. In other words, the initiatives exist, but they are often implemented separately from other policies, such as trade or development policies, which remain the cornerstone of the Union’s external action. This lack of coherence appears to result in undermining the effectiveness of the EU’s efforts to promote gender equality and act concretely on the eradication of gender-based violence across the world.

The political will to address gender-based violence in its relations with third countries also appears to be nonsystematic according to some stakeholders. European top officials are not consistently addressing upfront gender-based violence in countries where women’s rights are severely restricted. Additionally, stakeholders note that the leverage that Brussels can mobilise in the matter is not systematically used in negotiations. Other criticisms, such as a Western-centric approach, have also been raised by stakeholders in considering the EU’s external action on gender-based violence.

Lastly, as highlighted by a recent study from the European Economic and Social Committee, difficulties in allowing enough and steady resources for gender equality and gender-based violence initiatives exists, both in policies targeted inside and outside the Union. Therefore, and despite the EU’s efforts, funding for gender equality initiatives such as the Spotlight initiative, remains rather low and tends to limit the capacity of the EU to act as an effective norm promoter toward third-world countries on gender-based violence.

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Ultimately, the EU has made significant efforts to promote gender equality and combat gender-based violence, both within and outside the Union. The question, however, remains as to whether these efforts are enough to initiate a lasting reversal of trends in violence against women across the globe. The road is still long to achieve the eradication of gender-based violence, even though it appears that a political will is present in the mindset of European decision-makers. A more systematic and comprehensive approach to gender-based violence against women would do well to impose itself in Brussels and EU delegations across the world.

[This article was first published in the 38 issue of the magazine]

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