After more than a decade of advocacy by women’s rights groups, and amid an armed conflict following Russia’s full-scale invasion, as well as a bid for European Union membership, on Monday Ukraine’s parliament took an important step in combating violence against women and girls. By an overwhelming majority, Ukraine’s parliament approved ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Domestic Violence and Violence against Women, known as the Istanbul Convention.
The convention establishes legally binding standards for governments to prevent violence against all women and girls, to support survivors, and to hold abusers to account.
Like all human rights treaties, it also applies during armed conflict. Its implementation in Ukraine could not be more urgent.
Amid concerns about violence against women and girls during the war, the treaty commits the government to providing essential services and pathways to justice for victims of sexual and other gender-based violence, including rape. Crucially, it includes clear benchmarks for a victim-centered response that minimizes additional trauma and harm to survivors of violence.
Importantly, it does the same for domestic violence, which often increases during or in the wake of armed conflict as physical, emotional, and economic challenges intensify and social support systems disappear. Long before February’s escalation of the war in Ukraine, activists and the public had been calling on the government to ratify the convention and take stronger measures to combat domestic violence and the traditional attitudes and stereotypes that feed it. They also called for harsher punishments for abusers.
The international community should not forget that, perhaps more than ever, Ukraine’s government and civil society need support to ensure that the most fundamental and important elements of gender-based violence response are in place. This includes comprehensive post-rape care, including emergency contraception, post-exposure prophylaxis to prevent HIV, access to abortion, and mental health care. It also includes investigations by experts trained in survivor-centered, trauma-informed approaches to evidence collection and interviewing.
Ukraine’s government should complete procedures to ratify this powerful treaty and continue its work to bring national legislation in line with the convention. The government should implement measures that adhere to the highest standards in prevention of and response to domestic and other violence against women and girls.
War or not, these measures are crucial to improving the lives of women and girls affected by violence today and well into the future.