Sitting in a parliamentary committee room on the evening of Wednesday 7 December, Geeta Nazmi and Swinder Singh fought back tears to tell the story of their sister, Seeta Kaur. In March 2015, Seeta died under suspicious circumstances at the home of her husband and in-laws in India. Arriving to find her body wrapped in blankets, her sisters insisted on uncovering her and found bruising and marks they believe to be suggestive of strangulation around her neck. Seeta was a British national, but despite her family's belief that she was the victim of an honour killing, they have struggled in vain for two years to elicit meaningful support from the British authorities in investigating her death. On Wednesday evening, campaign group Southall Black Sisters launched a campaign calling for Justice for Seeta.
For four and a half long years, the government has dragged its feet on a transformative and far-reaching treaty that could have a major impact on tackling cases like Seeta's and many others.
In June 2012, the UK government signed the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, known as the Istanbul Convention. But years later it still has yet to ratify the convention, which would bring into legal force measures, among others, requiring the UK to protect from and prevent violence against women, and to prosecute perpetrators who are nationals or resident in the UK - wherever they commit the act of violence.
Described by UN women as a "gold standard", the Istanbul Convention requires governments to take concrete steps, which include ensuring psychological support and refuges for victims of violence and sufficient provision of rape crisis services. But it also requires an innovative joined-up response across government departments, NGOs, local authorities and other actors, in acknowledgement of the fact that no single agency or institution can solve the problem of violence against women alone.
The government has in the past blamed the delay in ratification on the requirement to make all aspects of the convention compatible with UK law, but many of the major obstacles involved, such as the criminalisation of forced marriage and coercive control, have already been overcome. Yet the UK continues to trail behind 22 states which have ratified the Convention, including Romania, Serbia, France and Spain.
On 16 December, there will be an important opportunity to move forwards, as MPs vote on a Private Member's Bill with cross-party support introduced by Dr Eilidh Whiteford MP. Campaign group IC Change, which is fighting for ratification of the convention, is calling on supporters to demand that their MPs turn up and support the bill. Robyn Boosey, co-director of IC Change, said: "Our parliament has the opportunity to change the course of women's lives across this country - and we can't afford to miss it. The Istanbul Convention helps guarantee that vital services don't disappear, but rather that we have a strong infrastructure of support. This will allow women to thrive, rather than fight to survive."
As police statistics reveal that the number of reported rapes has doubled in the past four years, and squeezed funding sees frontline sexual violence services under threat, this is a crucial opportunity for the government to demonstrate a real commitment to tackling the endemic problem of sexual and domestic violence.
Families like that of Seeta Kaur should not have to fight and struggle for years, denied justice and information about their sister's death. The longer the government drags its feet on ratifying the Istanbul Convention, the longer it seems to send the message that it is happier to pay lip service to the problem than actually taking concrete steps to solve it.