The next time you take a trip to Europe, look around the airport at the women travelling with you. It doesn’t matter what they look like, what nationality, what culture. Each of them is a potential victim.
Statistics coming out of Europe show that one out of every six women is a victim of domestic violence. Add other kinds of violence and the figures rise higher. Of course, statistics vary from country to country: and every “expert” knows that with a theme so personal, so taboo, they can only every represent a small slice of a potentially much wider problem. But one clear fact emerges: no matter what the country or the social strata, violence is a fact of life for women.
This is why the Council of Europe – best known for its role as the human rights guardian of Europe and as the seat of the Court of Human Rights – is taking action. Separate from the European Union, it is a forum which brings together governments to advance human rights protection in all its forms. For the Council to turn its focus to domestic violence means one thing: violence against women is a fundamental abuse of their human rights.
In 2011 the Council will launch a legally binding convention that will pledge the governments which ratify it to create laws to protect women. Its aim is to provide tools to combat violence through a combination of prevention, protection and prosecution. The Convention sprang from the 2006 – 2008 Campaign against Domestic Violence, but is spreading its net much wider, with honour killings, genital mutilation, harassment in the workplace and stalking amongst the issues it tackles.
Why act now? One major reason is the widening gap between what is on the statute books and what happens in the real world. The Council of Europe has driven moves to equality since the 1970s, shadowing the pioneering work of the women’s movement and mobilising Europe’s governments to bring equality laws before their parliaments. But although the laws are now there in black and white, and social service systems have adapted, many women still experience inequality and violence day to day. The Council of Europe’s hope is that an international treaty that provides a legal framework will create a stronger impetus for Europe’s government to bridge the gap.
More prosaically, European governments have woken up to the fact that violence against women is expensive. Medical treatment, prosecutions and police resources leave the taxpayer with a hefty bill. Prevention comes at a lesser cost – both in terms of money and in terms of lives saved.
The Council has 47 member countries, covering just about the entire European continent apart from Belarus and Kosovo, so it is well placed to make changes. Already, the earlier campaign led to a fundamental changes on the ground in Europe, with many governments criminalising domestic violence for the first time, whilst at the same time taking a new look at what they were providing for abused women. New havens opened – including the first ever purpose built hostel in Serbia – and governments started to take a long hard look at some assumptions: such as the fact that women should leave their homes to their abuses partners, effectively locking the door to their own home base and that of their children.
The launch of the convention marks the first European Human Rights treaty aimed especially at protecting women. It is a natural step in building up the arsenal of legal measures, with the Council of Europe its natural promoter. After all, the European Human Rights Convention, created after World War Two to avoid repeating the tragedies of history, has not only changed the human rights landscape but created a belief amongst most Europeans that attacks on human dignity should never be tolerated. Let’s hope the new convention recreates that success, and that injury, death and trauma to women can become a thing of the past.
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