Sixteen member states have now ratified the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention, which prevents and combats violence against women and domestic violence.
It is the first legally binding instrument in Europe and a country must comply with a treaty before it can ratify. The UK has so far failed to do so.
It signed the Istanbul Convention in June 2012 and, in January 2014, undertook to ratify as soon as forced marriage was criminalised. That happened in June 2014, but as of February 2015 the UK has not ratified. What is holding us back?
In a report published earlier this week, the Joint Committee on Human Rights investigated the UK’s progression towards ratification. They concluded that the UK continuously fails to implement our progressive international commitment and our laudable policies into practical, front-line action in the UK.
First, the government is failing to provide the necessary training to front-line staff. Schools are crucial here. They are often the only time young women have one-to-one contact with adults outside of their community.
An online forum set up by the committee found that 77 per cent of parent respondents thought that not enough was being done to educate children. The committee heard that one young person had told a teacher about her home situation but that it had been the ‘wrong teacher’. It is imperative that there is never a ‘wrong teacher’ so we never miss an opportunity to help our children.
The committee praised the enthusiasm of individuals and educational establishments to challenge violence against females, but made clear that the Department of Education must do more to provide the tools and guidance that schools need. For too long we have over-relied on the passion and commitment of our on-the-ground workers.
Campaigners have long pushed for violence against females to be a statutory requirement of the national curricula for all ages. The committee agrees. Although the government plans to release guidance on sexual consent for schools, more is needed to meet our convention obligations.
The range of violence against women is vast: issues surrounding consent form just one part of this. A survey by the NUS found that of those in higher education, 74 per cent of women and 72 per cent of men were aware of where to get help for a sexually transmitted infection, but only 14 per cent of women and 20 per cent of men had this same awareness for coercive marriage.
Second: the government is not devoting enough resources to tackle violence against women. On the contrary, we continue to see a reduction in resources for measures that protect women. It is no longer sustainable to express intentions to ratify and intentions to protect our women, while removing access to fundamental safeguards.
The convention’s explanatory report recommends that one family space in a refuge be provided for every 10,000 people. The Local Government Association reported that they had insufficient resources to be able to measure the number of spaces. That is simply not acceptable.
Even without the necessary statistics from local governments, it appears as though the government is struggling to meet this requirement: 31 per cent of referrals to refuges in 2013/2014 were turned away due to lack of space. Provision for refuges is made at a local level, and councils have seen a 40 per cent reduction in their budgets over this parliament.
Another report published this week by the Citizen’s Advice Bureau examined the effect of cuts to civil legal aid on victims of domestic violence. Although legal aid is available for victims of domestic violence in theory, the evidence required to obtain it makes access very difficult in practice.
Moreover, domestic violence victims find themselves in a Catch 22 scenario: coercive and economic control means they have no access to family assets, but family assets preclude a grant of legal aid.
Third, we must give a single government official the responsibility for coordinating all measures. The committee recognised the extensive campaigning some departments have undertaken, but noted the abject failure to join up approaches across government. Until we do, any training and resources will never reach maximum efficacy.
Praise went to the government for appointing a cabinet member, Nicky Morgan MP, as the minister for women. However, it is of some concern that this role sits within a far larger portfolio of responsibility for Morgan. It is hoped that Morgan will be given the powers to bridge the gap between our family, immigration and justice policies – to name just a few.
The UK government and the home secretary specifically have spoken of their deep commitment to ratifying the Istanbul Convention and protecting our women. Yet the committee found the “scale, pervasive nature, and seemingly cross-cultural ignorance, of violence against women and girls deeply troubling”.
It is time for our words to become actions. We must reach the standard we promote internationally. Until we do, women in the UK and worldwide continue to suffer.
Victoria Brown was called to the bar in 2014 and currently runs a non-profit which works with teachers to fight against forced marriage