I received a phone call from my local Conservative party representative last week. She asked me if I had any questions for the local M.P. so I asked her: 'Does your party intend to ratify the Istanbul Convention?'
'The what?' was her reply.
The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women (The Istanbul Convention) was signed by the UK government in June 2012 but has not yet been ratified, despite an assurance to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) of the intention to do so.
CEDAW is the UN's international Bill of Rights for women (ratified by the U.K. in 1986) which recognises gender inequality as the basis for violence against women and girls. The CEDAW Committee last examined the UK Government's performance in implementing recommendations in 2013. In their subsequent report they raised concerns about many issues in the UK, reminded the government of its intention to ratify the Istanbul Convention and urged them to do so (a point which the government ignored in its response to the report). Last month David Cameron confirmed to Women's Aid that the IC would not be ratified in this Parliament.
The U.K. has always had an ambivalent attitude towards CEDAW; Sandra Fredman, Professor of Law at Oxford University puts it like this:
'Although the government duly goes through the motions of preparing reports and responding to questions, it does not regard CEDAW as normative, in the sense of shaping policy or providing direction. To the extent that existing practices and policies happen to comply with CEDAW, it is happy to report compliance; where there is a challenge or a shortfall, however, it generally finds a means to justify its reluctance to change.'
The U.K.'s failure to apply the CEDAW recommendation to refrain from presenting women and girls 'as inferior beings and exploiting them as sexual objects and commodities' in the media is one such example: here is the U.K. Government's response to the concerns raised in the 2013 CEDAW report:
'The Government is active in a number of areas where the harmful impact of such images can be reduced, without restricting the activities of a free press. For example, the Government's Body Confidence Campaign seeks to reduce the burdens that popular culture can place on individual self-image and self esteem.'
In other words: rather than comply, we will pass responsibility to individual women to work on themselves and we will provide programmes to assist them in trying to repair the damage. This of course totally ignores the bigger point that CEDAW makes in establishing the link between sexually objectified images in the media and violence towards women and girls.
The Istanbul Convention was built on the framework of CEDAW as a means of ensuring its wider application within Europe, so could it be that the UK Government is unwilling to ratify it because of the fear of closer scrutiny from European neighbours? Would ratifying the IC mean that we could no longer get away with the arrogant, piecemeal approach we take to CEDAW?
Because of course here in the U.K. we like to think that violence against women and girls is a problem in other countries, but not here. The study published by the Lancet last year which pronounced violence against women a global 'epidemic' did not, however, state that the U.K. is exempt and stands alone as a beacon of safety in the world.
As a civilised western democracy our figures for violence against women and girls are in fact appalling. Around 85,000 women are raped every year in England and Wales, over 400,000 are sexually assaulted and domestic violence call-outs are a huge proportion of routine policing, at a rate of one call per minute across the U.K. Two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner.
An estimated 20,000 girls are at risk of female genital mutilation in the U.K. and 8,000 British girls will potentially face forced marriage.
According to the Children's Commissioner, at any one time 16,000 girls are at risk of sexual exploitation, and a survey for the Telegraph in 2015 revealed that one in three female students in Britain have experienced some form of sexual assault or abuse at university.
The list goes on and on.
Meanwhile at government level we continue to tweak at the edges of this massive problem with various new initiatives and policies rather than prioritise and implement the comprehensive measures of prevention, protection and prosecution already devised by CEDAW and refined by the IC.
Any political party that is serious about tackling violence towards women and girls would ratify the Istanbul Convention as a matter of urgency. What's stopping them?