6 Most Common Myths about the Istanbul Convention

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Ten years ago, in early May, the Council of Europe adopted the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. Despite the clearly defined goals in the document, there is a lot of manipulation around the Convention in different countries.

Ukraine participated in the drafting of the Convention together with other CoE states. On November 7, 2011, Ukraine signed the Istanbul Convention, but it was never ratified by the Ukrainian parliament.

What is the Istanbul Convention?

The so-called Istanbul Convention is an international standard for the protection of women against all forms of violence, including domestic violence. Today, it is the most comprehensive international agreement in this field, used as a basis for action by many European countries and beyond.

What is peculiar about this document is that for the first time in history, the Convention clearly says that violence against women and domestic violence cannot be considered a personal matter, and states are supposed to prevent violence, protect survivors and ensure criminal liability of perpetrators.

Therefore, the objectives of the Istanbul Convention are as follows:

  1. Protection of women from all forms of violence and its prevention, criminal prosecution, and elimination of violence against women and domestic violence;
  2. Promoting the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and promoting genuine equality between women and men, in particular by empowering women;
  3. Developing a comprehensive framework, policies, and measures to protect and assist all victims of violence against women and domestic violence;
  4. Promoting international cooperation to eliminate violence against women and domestic violence;
  5. Providing support and assistance to organizations and law enforcement agencies in their effective cooperation to adopt an integrated approach to the elimination of violence against women and domestic violence.

The Istanbul Convention is a very young document. After it was signed in 2011, it did not come into effect until August 2014. Since then, the Convention has been signed by 46 states, but only 34 have ratified it. In March 2021, Turkey announced the denunciation of the Convention and withdrew from it in July.

Moldova is the most recent country to have ratified the Convention—on October 14, 2021. Even though there were many manipulations on the subject, Moldova was able to ratify the Convention and ensure the implementation of its key objectives. This elevated the country, putting it among civilized states.

Today, 11 more countries are meant to ratify the convention, including Ukraine. However, despite the fact that the document raises important and urgent issues of human rights protection, and Ukraine was one of the authors of the text, this document continues to provoke heated discussions in Ukrainian society.

One reason for this is the lack of awareness and, consequently, lack of understanding of its provisions by some politicians and representatives of various social groups. Another reason is stereotypes, which complicate the broad implementation of some fundamental political principles in this sector. What further complicates the situation, of course, is the plethora of myths about the Convention.

The first attempt to ratify the Istanbul Convention in Ukraine was in 2016, but it was never supported by MPs. In 2020, a petition to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy demanding ratification of the Convention received the required 25,000 votes, and he later stated that he supported the need to ratify the Convention. An information and advocacy campaign on the ratification of the Istanbul Convention is currently underway in Ukraine. However, despite active work in this area, there are still multiple misunderstandings and heated discussions about the ratification in Ukraine.

Interestingly, another country that has signed but not ratified the Istanbul Convention is the Russian Federation. In Russia, domestic violence was decriminalized in 2017, and the main reason for refusing to ratify the Convention cited by Russia is its alleged incompatibility with traditional moral standards and the fundamentals of the national family policy.

Recent events attest to the fact that those fighting for the so-called traditional values are gaining greater power in Russia: people who have allegedly “violated the moral standards” are not only fined but also put in jail based on their lawsuits. In addition, Russia is actively disseminating propaganda against the Convention, and the bulk of fakes and manipulations come to Ukraine from the Russian media. Here, they are used by various radical political and activist movements, sometimes with entirely different ideologies.

Therefore, Ukraine should move away from outdated beliefs and uncivilized views on women’s rights, rather than follow Russia’s example.

Six Most Common Myths

We have looked at the most common fakes and misconceptions about the ratification of the Convention that exist in Ukraine. All manipulations and misleading arguments are described in more detailed in the brochure What Do I Say to People Doubting the Need to Ratify the Istanbul Convention?

Myth 1. Ukraine already has its own legislation aimed at preventing violence against women and domestic violence, so the Istanbul Convention is no longer needed.

Fact. Ukraine has indeed managed to include combating domestic violence into its national policy agenda. This is illustrated by the adoption of the Laws of Ukraine “On Prevention of Domestic Violence” and “On Prevention and Combating of Domestic Violence.” In 2019, the Criminal and Criminal Procedural Codes were amended accordingly. In 2020, the President of Ukraine signed the Decree “On Urgent Measures to Prevent and Combat Domestic Violence, Gender-Based Violence, Protection of the Rights of Victims.”

The Convention is important because, first of all, it covers the areas of Ukrainian legislation and practice that need improvement. This includes providing shelters to victims, the procedure of applying for compensation, and criminalization of female genital mutilation.

Secondly, after the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, Ukraine will join the growing list of member states that regularly exchange information on practices and approaches used for its better implementation.

Third, Ukraine will send a strong signal to the international community of its involvement in combating these forms of violence.

Another argument in favour of ratifying the Convention is that Ukraine does not have jurisdiction over foreign citizens who have committed crimes connected with domestic violence, and with most manifestations of violence against Ukrainian citizens committed abroad. Ratification of the Convention will provide greater opportunities to establish Ukraine’s jurisdiction over offences provided for under the Convention where such jurisdiction has not previously been exercised.

Myth 2. The wording of the Istanbul Convention and the ideologies underlying it have nothing to do with the problem of violence against women.

Fact. The purpose of the Istanbul Convention, as stated in the Preamble, is “to create a Europe free from violence against women and domestic violence.” Member States are therefore obliged to put in place a national legal framework to combat, prevent and prosecute all forms of violence against women. In addition, the Convention emphasizes the link between women’s empowerment, i.e. gender equality, and the elimination of all forms of violence against women.

Violence against women stems not only from biological differences between men and women, i.e. sex, but mainly from “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men,” Article 3 states. Such stereotypical gender roles contribute to the subordinate status of women in society and can lead to harmful practices and violence against women becoming acceptable in the private and public spheres.

Among the goals of the Convention is the protection of women from all forms of violence, including domestic violence. In addition, Article 2 also calls for the Convention to be applied to all victims of domestic violence.

The Council of Europe notes that, despite the clear purpose of the document and the seriousness of the problem of violence, some religious and ultra-conservative groups are spreading misinformation about the concept of gender in the Convention.

“Gender” is just one of the notions used by the Convention, and it is never mentioned for the purposes of the document itself. The Istanbul Convention does not replace the idea of “sex” with “gender.” These notions exist simultaneously and even beyond the context of the convention: sex is dictated by nature, gender—by society.

This notion remains the strongest argument for opponents of the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. In June this year, the PACE President announced that Ukraine could ratify the Istanbul Convention with “explanations on gender.” The Council of Europe, despite its declarations of the inviolability of this convention and the impossibility of derogating from it, is in fact ready to accept ratification in a way that eliminates the “gender threat.”

Myth 3. The Istanbul Convention discriminates against men and makes them unilaterally responsible for domestic violence

Fact. The gender-neutral definition of domestic violence confirms that victims of domestic violence can be men, children and the elderly. However, it is commonly acknowledged that most victims of domestic violence are women.

According to the Ministry of Social Policy, in 2020, the largest number of complaints about domestic violence came from women – as many as 86%. As for the other part, 12% come from men, and 2% from children. According to unofficial statistics, one in three Ukrainian women has experienced domestic violence. It is also noteworthy that most victims mostly conceal the facts of beatings, rape and humiliation: only one in five victims seeks help.

The Istanbul Convention, in turn, encourages member states to apply its provisions to all victims of domestic violence, including men, children and the elderly.

Myth 4. The Istanbul Convention is imposed on Ukraine by the West

There is also the myth that the Istanbul Convention is a foreign document that Europe imposes on Ukraine.

Ukraine is among the authors of the Convention. It signed the Convention without any external pressure and thus agreed to ratify it. It is worth noting that Ukraine has been a member of the Council of Europe since 1995. The ratification of the Istanbul Convention will take place at the decision of the Ukrainian authorities.

Representatives of the Ukrainian Government (Ministry of Justice, Permanent Mission of Ukraine to the Council of Europe) were members of the temporary committee working on the Convention. They participated in multiple joint meetings and discussions. After a consensus was reached, the committee sent the text of the Convention to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe consisting of Foreign Ministers of member states.

However, an individual country may not change the text of the Convention at its own discretion. If several countries have suggestions following a certain period or see that some provisions do not work, there is a special joint procedure for making changes.

Myth 5. The Istanbul Convention leads to the destruction of the traditional Ukrainian family

Fact. The regulation of family life or family structure is not the purpose of the Convention. The Convention requires governments to ensure the safety of victims who feel they are in danger at home or are threatened by family members or partners. Similarly, the document cannot in any way affect family life and / or family structure, as it does not define the term “family” in the first place, nor does it promote a particular type of the family.

In addition, the convention does not contain and thus cannot jeopardize the concept of the family—it does not address this issue at all and does not regulate it, and therefore the ratification of the convention in itself cannot require the recognition of same-sex marriages. Preventing violence and working with perpetrators, as advocated by the Convention, will help to preserve families, not destroy them.

There is also a misconception that if the Convention is ratified, it will affect education: harm moral foundations of Ukrainian society and undermine children’s understanding of a family as a union of a man and a woman. In this case, the Council of Europe emphasizes that the Istanbul Convention does not affect the right of parents to educate their children, but only encourages states to include educational materials on domestic violence in school curricula. The state, however, is free to choose how to accomplish it.

Myth 6. The Istanbul Convention calls for the legalization of same-sex marriage and establishes new approaches to the definition of gender identity

The Convention does not require changes to national legislation on marriage, family and adoption, nor does it promote LGBT, which evident from the text of the Convention.

The concepts of “gender” and “gender equality” are not something new or incompatible with Ukrainian legislation. The Law of Ukraine “On Ensuring Equal Rights and Opportunities for Women and Men,” adopted in 2005 and remaining in force, defines the concept of “gender equality” as equal legal status for women and men and stipulates equal opportunities for women and men to take equal participation in all aspects of society.

According to the Council of Europe experts, the Istanbul Convention does not establish new standards on gender identity or sexual orientation, including legal recognition of same-sex couples. The principle of non-discrimination on the grounds of gender identity or sexual orientation is based on legal obligations arising from other legal instruments, in particular the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

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