A new declaration based on the Istanbul convention carries forward the struggle against a pervasive social phenomenon.
Last week, a significant step in strengthening strategies across Europe to tackle domestic violence was taken in Dublin, when 38 out of the 46 members of the Council of Europe adopted a joint declaration. This aims to tackle the cultural norms which perpetuate the crime and pledges a series of steps to promote the gender equality which can help prevent domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.
This ‘Dublin declaration’ will strengthen the action being taken by member states to secure implementation of the Council of Europe’s landmark 2011 Istanbul convention, on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.
In particular, the declaration requires signatory states to ensure that children’s voices are heard in child-custody disputes where domestic violence is a factor. There are commitments to include specific roles for men and boys in strategies to combat violence against women and girls. At all levels in school and college curricula, non-stereotypical role models and non-violent conflict resolution are to be promoted, as well as in-service training for those working in criminal justice, to challenge biases which could impede effective protection of victims.
‘Significant and important’
In an Irish context, the Women’s Aid organisation in Dublin, which has been campaigning to combat domestic violence nationally for many decades, described the declaration as a ‘significant and important’ step for women and children across Europe. The National Women’s Council in Ireland also strongly welcomed the declaration, pointing out that it ‘takes a long-term approach to preventing domestic violence [and] targets the need for cultural change across institutions and society which is badly needed to address the causes of domestic and gender-based violence’.
The focus in the declaration on victim-centred approaches—notably in ensuring victims’ safety and support and full respect for their human rights—has also been widely welcomed by victims’ and survivors’ groups in Ireland. Indeed, adoption of the declaration comes three months after the justice minister, Helen McEntee, published the third Irish national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, and it aligns with commitments made when Ireland ratified the Istanbul convention in March 2019.
While it is regrettable that not all member states of the Council of Europe have yet signed up to the Dublin declaration, last week’s development does represent real progress in advancing the work being done by the organisation in tackling gender-based violence and in driving the commitment to the principles of the convention. Undoubtedly, adoption of the declaration will also strengthen the work going on across the European Union—all of whose member states are members of the Council of Europe—to tackle domestic and gender-based violence.
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Over a decade after the Istanbul convention itself was adopted, and despite many reforms to national laws on domestic and gender-based violence across European states, significant obstacles however remain to the effective investigation and prosecution of such crimes. National reforms have been introduced largely because courageous women have spoken out about their experiences as survivors of such violence, with the support of advocacy groups. Their interventions have helped to debunk many of the problematic myths around rape, sexual abuse and domestic violence, and have fed into a change in legal understanding of key concepts such as ‘consent’.
As a result of this advocacy, positive legal changes introduced in many European jurisdictions, including Ireland, have included measures to improve victims’ experiences of policing and court processes, new definitions of ‘consent’ and a legal understanding of the impact of ‘coercive control’. Through such behaviour, perpetrators of abuse will typically subject victims to persistent surveillance, harassment and manipulation—psychological abuse which can have serious long-term consequences for their health and wellbeing. In Ireland, for example, an offence of ‘coercive control’ was introduced in 2018; the first conviction was in 2020.
Yet despite these welcome reforms, across Europe and internationally cases involving gender-based violence, including domestic violence and sexual abuse, are characterised by low reporting and conviction rates, with high attrition. Victims of domestic violence in various countries tend to have traumatic experiences of the criminal process, including lengthy delays and frequent deferrals. The criminal-justice system also tends to be fragmented, with inadequate communication between criminal and family courts. Action must be taken to address these issues, and to reform court processes, so that they meet the real needs of the women and children most affected by domestic violence.
A core problem is that few acts of domestic violence are isolated events. The criminal law is generally designed to attribute liability for one-off incidents—this can be difficult to apply in the context of an ongoing abusive relationship. The statistics kept by national police do not tend to identify repeat call-outs, or what relationship exists between victim and perpetrator, so that it is impossible in many jurisdictions to know how many recorded incidents of violence involve the same individual.
It is also difficult to ascertain how effective or otherwise the criminal law is, given that most domestic and sexual violence goes unreported—the so-called ‘dark figure’ or hidden reality of such crime. This remains a serious impediment in seeking to establish clear data on gender-based violence internationally.
In any event, the criminal- and family-law processes can only be part of the solution. A package of other measures are needed, such as more shelters for adult and child victims, prevention and treatment programmes for abusers, and adequate resources for support groups. And a welcome change of emphasis in laws and policies across Europe is happening, with a clear move towards tackling perpetrators and preventing abuse as well as trying to mend the damage perpetrators do, through shelters and supports for women and children who are victims of violence in the home.
Ultimately, a fundamental change in social attitudes is required, if we are really to tackle the awful problem of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. True change can only be achieved through a combination of legal activism, sharing of experiences, advocacy and campaigning work.
In particular, it is important that the many myths about gender-based violence, which continue to abound, are targeted. Even the phrase ‘domestic violence’ is problematic—it sounds trivial (‘only a domestic’ is still a common informal expression within the criminal-justice system). ‘Gender-based violence’ or ‘violence in intimate relationships between women and men’ may be more accurate. But whichever term is used, this form of violence remains an issue fraught with difficulty in law, and a phenomenon which causes great human misery and suffering still, particularly to women and children.
The seriousness, frequency and pervasiveness of the violence, particularly when it occurs in a domestic or intimate setting, is often played down or denied and all too often explained away by external factors. Even where victims are not implicitly blamed for provoking the violence, they are often regarded as blameworthy because they stay with their abusers. In a victim-blaming culture in which women lack power and in which women’s voices have not been sufficiently heard for far too long, such myths can endure.
In setting out a series of measures aimed at achieving cultural change, the Dublin declaration therefore represents a real advance in our understanding of gender-based violence. Its adoption marks a significant step forward. But the key question remains: why does gender-based violence remain such a pervasive and persistent problem within our society?