Protest outside the Greek Parliament in Athens on March 27, 2021 against a bill that would introduce compulsory equal joint custody of children in cases of separation or divorce.  ©2021 Nikolas Kokovlis/NurPhoto via AP.

(Athens) – A bill to amend child custody provisions in Greece’s civil code disregards risks for domestic violence victims that would put women and children in jeopardy, Human Rights Watch said today.

The bill, "Reforms regarding parent-child relations and other family law issues,” is expected to be introduced in parliament in early May 2021. It would redefine the “best interests of the child” in Greek law and presume equal shared custody of children in cases of separation or divorce. Any exceptions, including in cases of domestic violence, would require a potentially lengthy court process. The proposed changes contravene international law, which requires that custody determinations be based on assessment of the best interests of the individual child, and do not ensure sufficient protections for domestic abuse victims and their children.

“Equal co-parenting is a laudable goal, but a blanket presumption of 50-50 child custody ignores the dangerous reality for domestic abuse victims – overwhelmingly women – and their children,” said Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Greek parliament should put the safety of children and abuse victims first and reject these alarming changes.”

Expert organizations in Greece have expressed deep concern about the proposed changes to the civil code. During public consultation on the bill, groups criticized the bill’s fundamental presumption universally equating the child’s best interests with parents’ equal participation in the child’s upbringing, rather than requiring case-by-case determinations.

The groups included the Hellenic Society of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Family Law Society, the Greek National Commission for Human Rights, the Lawyers Committee on Legal Issues of Co-Custody, the gender equality organization Diotima, and Refugee Support Aegean.

The proposed changes would permit courts to curtail parental communication with a child when there is “bad or abusive exercise” of this right or revoke custodial rights if a parent is unable to comply with obligations or performs this function abusively. However, such rulings must be final or issued by the Supreme Court, a legal process that can take years, during which an allegedly abusive parent could maintain co-custody and communication with the child and co-parent.

In cases of “imminent danger” to a child’s mental and physical health, a prosecutor can take immediate protection measures and then has 90 days to bring the case to court. The bill makes no specific mention of abuse of one parent by another, or measures to protect victims of intimate partner abuse in cases of co-custody.

Such omissions in the law could force women and their children into ongoing contact with abusers and create opportunities for further harm, often coinciding with the particularly high-risk period for injury or even death when a victim leaves her abuser. Abusers could exploit child custody arrangements to abuse victims physically, psychologically, or through economic pressure. The bill, if enacted, may deter victims from leaving their abusers. Women in Greece already face multiple barriers, including victim-blaming and dismissive police response, to reporting domestic violence and seeking help.

The bill permits judges to order mediation in cases in which parents cannot reach agreement on joint custody or if a parent fails to comply with custody agreements. International and regional rights bodies have explicitly warned against mediation in cases of violence against women, saying that prior evaluation by specialists is required to ensure that such procedures do not increase risks or are not conducted against the victims’ will.

Proponents contend that the bill will boost equity and combat a “sexist culture” that primarily grants custody to mothers. The bill comes amid a raft of legislation and policy initiatives in Europe aimed at promoting traditional conceptions of family life at the expense of women’s rights, including in ways that can curtail protections for women who experience domestic violence and perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes.

United Nations experts sharply criticized a similar bill in Italy in 2018 as a “potential serious retrogression” on women’s rights and protection from violence. A group of UN and regional experts have stated that intimate partner violence against women must be considered in child custody determinations and that neglecting to do so reflects discrimination against women.

The Greek bill’s redefinition of the best interests of the child violates a basic tenet of the Convention on the Rights of Child, which Greece ratified in 1993. The expert committee that oversees implementation of the convention has said that any determination of a child’s best interests “requires an assessment appropriate to the specific context.”

The bill’s provisions would also contravene the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), ratified by Greece in 1983. The CEDAW Committee, which monitors compliance with the convention, has said that in cases of gender-based violence, the lives and health of women and children should be prioritized over claims by the abuser, including with regard to child custody, access, and visitation. It found that Spain had violated the rights of a domestic abuse victim and her daughter, whom her father murdered after courts failed to adequately consider his abuse when determining child visitation.

The bill, if enacted, would also violate the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (the Istanbul Convention), ratified by Greece in 2018, which requires governments to consider any incidence of violence against women or domestic violence in determining child custody and visitation and to ensure that arrangements do not put mother or child at risk.

Greece’s parliament should reject the bill as drafted and revise it to ensure that it protects the lives and health of parents and children, including robust safeguards for domestic violence victims, Human Rights Watch said. The government should establish a family court system – which Greece does not have – to adjudicate such matters, including trained experts to assist in determining a child’s best interests and conducting risk assessments for parents and children. 

Greece’s international partners, including the European Commission, Council of Europe Commissioner on Human Rights, and UN experts on violence and discrimination against women should urge the Greek government to reject legislative changes that could endanger domestic abuse victims and that run counter to Greece’s obligations under international law.

“A law that could force people to withstand ongoing domestic abuse is not in anyone’s best interests,” Margolis said. “The Greek government should recognize the risks women and children face in their own families and act to ensure that child custody can’t be used as another weapon.”