As we approach International Women's Day on 8 March, we have an opportunity to reflect on the milestones that have been achieved, and also look towards the aspects where we must continue to strive to do more.
The Scottish Government has played in reducing domestic abuse - including the First Minister's announcement of an additional £20m over three years to tackle violence against women. Recorded crime in Scotland is at a 41-year low - yet new figures published this week show that the number of convictions for domestic abuse are on the rise. Of particular note, a 40% increase in the number of convictions for rape and attempted rape was revealed. These figures demonstrate a culture where more women know their rights and are increasingly confident to report gender based violence to the authorities; as well as a legal system which prioritises the safety of vulnerable women.
One of the great achievements of the UK Parliament is the cross-party support for ending violence against women. The UK is considered a leader in the fight for women's rights on the world stage. In 2014, for example, the UK hosted three major international summits to highlight injustices against women: on FGM, sexual violence and forced marriages.
Yet something is missing from the UK's claim as a major player in the fight for gender equality.
The Council of Europe's Convention on Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (the "Istanbul Convention"), arguably the most progressive international treaty for women's rights, remains unratified by the UK. It therefore does not apply to Scotland or the other devolved
administrations, and undermines the efforts made to curb violence against women that the Scottish Government has made a priority.
The UK signed the Istanbul Convention on 8 June 2012, yet the Government has stalled on ratification and therefore is not legally bound by its provisions.
Once an international treaty has been signed, the Government must then make sure it is compatible with UK law. In January 2014, David Cameron said he expected to be able to ratify the Istanbul Convention in the "next few months," following the criminalisation of forced marriages.
Indeed, as Mr Cameron predicted, the UK did ban forced marriages as part of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, which came into force in June 2014. Yet on the issue of ratification of the Istanbul Convention, Cameron has gone silent.
While the ban on forced marriages has sent out a clear signal to the rest of the world that the UK is on the side of vulnerable women, that message is tainted by the reluctance of the Government to formally take a lead on promoting the Istanbul Convention. In fact, when countries such as Turkey, Serbia and Albania have ratified the treaty, it beggars belief that the UK cannot formalise its commitment to women's rights.
It is my belief that the rights of women as enshrined within the Istanbul convention are fundamental human rights. The provisions of the convention are focused on preventing domestic violence, protecting victims and prosecuting accused offenders. The offences which must be criminalised are explicitly stated: psychological violence; physical violence; sexual violence; forced marriage; female genital mutilation; forced abortion; forced sterilisation; sexual harassment; and crimes committed in the name of so-called "honour". As a state which prioritises human rights, these offences are of course already against UK law. In addition, Article 44 of the Istanbul Convention also allows British offenders abroad to be tried in a UK court, meaning overseas offenders have nowhere to hide from justice.
None of these provisions are contrary to existing UK laws, and the extra provisions of Article 44 do not appear to be unwelcome among British lawmakers. However, when I asked in Parliament what was holding up the ratification process, Karen Bradley, the Minister for Preventing Abuse, Exploitation and Crime, answered that the Government was investigating the compatibility of extraterritoriality with the laws of the devolved administrations in the UK.
When it comes to ensuring the endorsement of the Istanbul Convention across Europe, that such a point of contention could take four years to explore with no promised timescale for completion is a scandal; and I suspect this legal point is being used to conceal the real issue. Rather, I believe the reason ratification has been delayed lies in the Tory Government's austerity ideology.
Article 22 of the Istanbul Convention requires the state to provide specialist support services for victims and their children - for example, sheltered accommodation, psychological and legal counseling, advocacy and outreach services, and telephone helplines. When the Government is so obstinate in its commitment to austerity that women's aid groups across the UK are being forced into closure, it is hardly surprising that this aspect of the convention which legally formalises a victim's rights to support would cause problems. Yet as this is a human rights issue, it is immoral to expect vulnerable women to find a way to get out of a dangerous situation and get on with their lives, without the highest standards of assistance.
The roll-out of welfare reform in the UK may also contribute to the Government's reluctance to ratify the Istanbul Convention. For example, the structure of Universal Credit payments mean joint claims are paid into a single bank account. This policy is damaging to the financial autonomy of women, which worsens the situation of abused women. Research by Women's Aid and the TUC showed that abusive partners will often coercively control access to money, which means the abused partner has much less opportunity to flee a dangerous situation.
In a joint statement with his Liberal Democrat deputy Nick Clegg in the last Parliament, David Cameron said the agreement was "not just a piece of paper"; that it would "lift the standards of protection for women across Europe, give greater support for victims and bring many more perpetrators to justice." I agree with the Prime Minister's assessment of the Convention, and it is his own expressed vision for how this agreement could ameliorate the lives of many women in dire situations which makes the Government's failure to ratify so frustrating.
I urge David Cameron to fulfil his own promise, four years on, to solidify the UK's world-leading reputation as a protector of women's rights by ratifying the Istanbul Convention.
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