What if, this year, the European Union celebrated International Women’s Day on 8 March by taking bold action to stop violence against women?
The EU can lead by example if it begins the process of ratifying the Istanbul Convention, the ground-breaking Council of Europe treaty to end violence against women.
The opportunity for the EU to ratify human rights treaties as an entity has been fairly limited until now, but the Istanbul Convention explicitly provides that option.
Violence against women and girls is a vast problem across the European Union.
A major study by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency in 2014 caused shock waves when it found that one in three women surveyed across the EU had experienced physical or sexual violence since the age of 15.
Services and support for these women are inadequate in most EU member states. The 2013 annual report from Women against Violence Europe found that only Luxembourg and Slovenia had enough shelter spaces for survivors of violence against women to meet Council of Europe minimum standards.
In a recent report, the United Kingdom’s Joint Human Rights Committee noted that the UK government, while seen as a leader in bringing attention to violence against women abroad, needs to increase efforts to tackle the problem at home.
The annual survey by the UK organisation Women’s Aid reported that in 2013-2014 nearly a third of domestic violence survivors referred to shelters were turned away for lack of space, and 13 percent of responding agencies had closed or suspended services because of insufficient funding.
The Joint Human Rights Committee found that shifts in responsibility for allocation of state funds for shelters and other services have left ethnic minority women particularly vulnerable.
Close to home
Women in Belgium, Hungary, Spain, and the United Kingdom have told Human Rights Watch about horrific abuse by their husbands or partners and a lack of services or support to assist them.
Many said police turned them away or humiliated them when they sought help.
In a 2013 report on Hungary, Tunde, 21, told Human Rights Watch that her neighbors called the police when they heard her screaming as her husband punched her in the stomach and pushed her into a wall.
But when the police arrived, her husband told them the couple had a minor disagreement, and the officers did not question Tunde and her husband separately.
“They told me to get a medical report and then press charges because the way things stood, they could only interfere if blood flows,” Tunde said.
The Council of Europe aims to prohibit such inaction: in 2011, it took an ambitious step when it launched the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, known as the Istanbul Convention after the city where it opened for signature.
The convention came into force in 2014. Sixteen countries have ratified it, including nine of the 28 EU member states.
The Istanbul Convention can save lives in countries that ratify and implement it.
The treaty is notably comprehensive and robust, mandating protection from all forms of violence against women, including domestic and sexual violence, stalking, harassment, forced marriage, female genital mutilation and forced sterilisation.
The treaty covers particularly vulnerable groups such as asylum seekers and undocumented migrants. In countries that ratify, this means that women like Fatima H., who suffered severe domestic violence in Pakistan but lost her asylum claim in the United Kingdom, would have a fair chance to make her case for refuge on the grounds of gender-based violence.
It means that women like Gisele M., an undocumented Brazilian migrant in Belgium whose partner stabbed her in the neck with a fork, would have a better shot at receiving protection.
When Gisele went to police for help, they did not detain her partner or investigate the case. Instead they accompanied her home to get her passport, took her to the hospital for treatment, and then handed her an order to leave the country within five days.
EU ratification of the Istanbul Convention would send a strong signal that combating violence against women and girls is a priority for the European Union and its member states.
Ratifying the convention is the right thing for the EU - and all EU member states - to do.
What better way to make International Women’s Day meaningful?