The Istanbul Convention: A Step Forward for Gender-Based Violence

Last Friday afternoon, the House of Commons passed a Private Members’ Bill by 135-2 committing the government to take further steps to ratify the Istanbul Convention, the ‘gold standard’ of gender violence legislation. Thanks to the tremendous work of volunteers at IC Change and the Women’s Equality Party, I watched from the public gallery as Labour, SNP and (most) Tory MPs spoke in support of a bill which could have profound implications for the alleviation of gender-based violence in the UK.

What is the Istanbul Convention?

Created in 2011, the Istanbul Convention is a comprehensive legal framework seeking to harmonise minimum standards across its signatories for the prevention, protection, and prosecution of violence against women. Though the UK was one of its earliest proponents, the government has since ducked formal ratification but has, to its credit, demonstrated a general commitment to the relevant issues. But if eventually ratified, the convention would be enshrined into UK law, obliging the government to act upon its designated steps.

Now that the Bill has passed its second reading, it will move through a convoluted legislative process in which amendments to its precise provision can be suggested. Home Office Minister Brandon Lewis offered qualified governmental support for the convention; suggesting it may require amendment at a later stage, particularly regarding the removal of a time-passage clause which requires the government to provide a route-map towards ratification four weeks after the Bill receives Royal Assent.

That does sound a little like delaying tactics, and further action will almost certainly be required to pressure the government into official ratification, but this is nonetheless a huge step in the right direction.

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IC Change and Women’s Equality Party Campaigners Outside Westminster. Photo: IC Change UK via Facebook

A Failed Filibuster

One of the less entertaining parts of Friday’s debate was the mind-numbing 78 minute ‘filibuster’ by Conservative MP Philip Davies. He’s well known for his abilities to ‘talk out’ legislation he doesn’t personally agree with, having contributed to the blocking of bills designed to provide free hospital car parking for carers, first aid training to children in school, and banning the use of wild animals in circuses.

If brevity is the soul of wit, Davies clearly didn’t get the memo. Its worth, however, considering the substance – namely the first 20 minutes – of what he said. His opposition hinged upon the classic argument that legislation targeting women is implicitly legislation in discrimination of men. ‘Why can’t we have a bill designed to prevent violence against everyone, not just women?’ was essentially the crux of his lengthy argument.

Let’s take domestic abuse, which 1 in 4 women will experience in their lifetime. For opponents, the Istanbul Convention unnecessarily ignores the 1 in 6 male victims and is therefore not a holistic approach to alleviating absolute domestic abuse. However, by advocating ‘equality of approach’, Davies fails to address the root causes of domestic abuse; focusing upon the cure rather than the prevention.

Focus upon prevention addresses the oppressive cultural norms which continually reproduce the disproportionality of domestic abuse where gender exists as both cause and consequence. To dismiss the Convention as discriminating against men is to overlook the broader structural patterns indicating that domestic abuse is a manifestation of gender-based violence, and is a distinct phenomenon that must be understood in lockstep with gender.

To be clear, if Philip Davies wishes to support a separate bill catering specifically for the needs of male victims, I’ll be there in the public gallery again supporting his every word. Needless to say, violence against men is no less important, and every individual victim should receive the appropriate support they need. Men undeniably experience domestic abuse differently – in nature, severity, and consequence – and it is vital we provide the necessary tailored provision. But attempts to highjack the Istanbul Convention on the basis of equal provision retract from effective prevention. In this instance, a gender-neutral approach produces inequality of outcome simply because it is not sensitive to the distinct social constructions rooted in women’s unequal status in society.

Domestic abuse is, of course, just one element of gender-based violence discussed in the Convention. Female genital mutilation (FGM), honour killings, and sexual harassment are also areas in critical need of attention. Such is the comprehensive scope of the Convention that it similarly addresses the bespoke requirements in each of these cases. Yet its most important contribution is a reconsideration of how we should approach violence in our society; only by acknowledging its often gender-orientated origins can we begin to properly amalgamate prevention with cure, and understand the distinct, yet equally important, phenomena of the male and female experience.

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