Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq

This year marked 10 years since the Istanbul convention’s first 13 countries signed up, seen at the time as a turning point in efforts to combat violence against women and girls. However, recent progress leaves a lot to be desired. The anniversary comes at a troubled time for women in Europe and beyond.

In March, Turkey – the birthplace of the convention – announced its withdrawal from the world’s first binding treaty to address gender-based violence. The recent move is indicative of a backwards global trend: ultra-conservative movements have consistently attempted to undermine women’s rights under the ruse of “traditional family values”. The Covid-19 pandemic has compounded the situation: recent strides forward in gender equality in employment have been reversed, violence against women is on a historic rise, and obstacles in accessing reproductive rights have multiplied.

In Turkey, politics has been the domain of right-wing populists, escalating anti-feminist and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric backed by the authoritarian leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Mr. Erdoğan has publicly reiterated that he does not believe in equality between men and women and his government has increasingly linked women’s safety and wellbeing to staying at home with their partners. However, according to the Istanbul Security Directorate, there was a 38.2% increase in domestic violence cases in March 2020 as compared to March 2019. Almost 40 per cent of women in Turkey suffer violence at their partner’s hand, compared with about 25 per cent in Europe, according to the WHO. Evidence suggests that as the Covid-19 pandemic drags on, another pandemic of gender-based violence is going on under the radar.

In Poland – a state notorious for some of the strictest abortion laws in the EU – the ruling Peace and Justice party is pressing further on withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention. According to leaked government documents, the government is seeking to replace the treaty with one that would ban same-sex marriage and abortions. 

In Ukraine there has been strong opposition to the signing of the convention from orthodox religious groups who perceive it to be a threat to traditional “family values”. Activist Halyna Fedkovych from Women’s Perspectives, a Ukrainian women’s rights organisation, said in recent years she has seen women facing increasing barriers to accessing justice and has received twice as many calls for help.

Miroslava Bobáková, co-director of the Slovak-Czech Women’s Fund, said in Slovakia, a signatory of the treaty, the convention is increasingly seen as “an essence of evil”. The situation in the country is especially dire for marginalized women— single mothers, women living in poverty and women from the Roma community.

The chaos and anxiety surrounding COVID-19 should not be used as a distraction from harmful attempts to sneak through dangerous legislation by conservative politicians. The prime focus of governments during the pandemic should be on protecting our health, not interfering in and further jeopardizing women’s rights and safety.  Campaigners and women’s rights groups have insisted that the Istanbul convention remains a powerful weapon in the fight to end gender-based violence, however, these recent developments are dissipating the hopes of many. It looks like the clarion call for global actions on the anniversary year has yet to be heeded.