The UK’s First Country Visit under the Istanbul Convention. Part I: Systemic Challenges and Institutional Inertia

by | Dec 11, 2023

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About Shazia Choudhry

Shazia Choudhry is a Professor in the Faculty of Law and Hackney Fellow in Law at Wadham College, University of Oxford. Her research is focused on gender, human rights and violence against women and seeks to examine various dimensions of these areas from an interdisciplinary and feminist perspective.

This blog marks the culmination of the 16 Days of Action for the Elimination of Violence against Women, seeking to call to end violence against women and girls around the world. The 16 Days run from 25 November (the UN International Day of Elimination of Violence against Women) to 10 December (Human Rights Day).

In early 2024, the Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO) will carry out an evaluation visit to report on the UK’s baseline compliance with the Istanbul Convention. This will be its first country visit to the UK, in line with the treaty’s provisions. The Convention is a legally binding instrument designed to create a comprehensive framework to counter violence against women and girls. It highlights the need for preventative measures, such as establishing refugee shelters, providing education on equality between men and women, criminalising forced and underage marriages, collecting data on prosecutions of gendered crime, and promoting women’s economic and social independence. The first part of this blog series will consider past observations from GREVIO and the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) in relation to addressing gender-based violence in the UK. The second part of this series then examines the UK’s Reservations with respect to the Istanbul Convention, and the risks these reservations produce for some of the most vulnerable groups of women.

There are certain issues that GREVIO noted in their first, second and third general reports that are particularly pertinent to the UK in terms of the law and policy landscape in this area.  First among these is the need for a gendered understanding of violence against women to underpin the provision of services, recognising that “the gender-neutral approach fails to recognise domestic violence as a social mechanism that helps keep women in a subordinate position to men, thus countering the convention’s fundamental emphasis on the need for a comprehensive, holistic approach and coordinated policies to effectively combat violence against women” [para 41 of the first report]. Secondly, GREVIO has observed that the number of specialist support services for victims of violence against women, including those dedicated to digital manifestations of violence against women, is still insufficient and that their funding remains extremely volatile.

In addition, lacunae persist with regards to the protection afforded to women victims of domestic violence and their children, particularly in the context of custody and visitation decisions. The use of “parental alienation” as a means of minimising evidence of domestic violence in civil proceedings – and the insufficient attention consequently paid to ensuring the safety of victims of domestic violence and their children – has been a particular problem noted across member states. Fourth, GREVIO has commented on the absence of effective measures addressing the specific needs of women from vulnerable groups: these include women with disabilities; women from national minorities such as the Roma community; LBT women; women from rural areas; migrant, asylum-seeking and refugee women; women without a residence permit; and women with addiction [para 55 of the first report]. Finally, the plight of migrant women, particularly those seeking asylum/refugee status both in terms of provision of services and access to protection, is another of GREVIO’s urgent concerns.

The last significant parliamentary assessment of the UK’s compliance with the Convention was conducted in 2015 by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR). It produced a comprehensive report highlighting a number of issues which required improvement and monitoring. These included the number and effectiveness of prevention programmes; the effectiveness of frontline police officers responding to domestic violence cases, which led to serious harm to victims; the effectiveness of the introduction of the new criminal offence of coercive control; and the continuing concerns surrounding an inadequate number of refuge spaces and the ‘postcode lottery’ that victims of violence must navigate. The JCHR also noted concerns around the provision of legal aid for victims of domestic abuse who wish to access the family courts, and observed that victims with insecure immigration status (including asylum seekers or refugees) are often overlooked, as immigration policy is developed separately from policy responses to violence against women and girls. Unfortunately, most if not all these issues continue to be of concern eight years after the JCHR’s report, as has been noted by Women’s Aid (2021, 2023), the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, Imkaan and Southall Black Sisters. As such, it is to be hoped that GREVIO’s impending country visit will galvanise persistent institutional inertia in the UK and help contribute to systemic changes that address the wide spectrum of gender-based violence.

See also the second part of this series, examining the impact on vulnerable women of the UK’s reservations to the Istanbul Convention.

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