On 16 December, the UK took one step closer to enshrining in law adequate support for women facing sexual and domestic violence. MPs voted to back a private member’s bill on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. The bill will now pass to the committee stage and if successful will require the UK government to ratify the Istanbul Convention on violence against women, passing it into UK law.
At a time when the government continues to cut funding for services that support victims of sexual and domestic violence, more robust laws to protect these services are desperately needed. The situation has become so critical that last year two-thirds of women and children referred to domestic violence refuges were turned away, mostly due to a lack of bed space.
Ratifying the Istanbul Convention would oblige the government to provide adequate funding for these services. The convention is a comprehensive legal framework and set of actions for addressing violence against women and girls in all its forms. UN Women, the global champion for gender equality, has described the convention as a ‘a gold standard’ for tackling violence against women. Once ratified, the UK government would have to take all the necessary steps it sets out to prevent violence, protect women experiencing violence, prosecute perpetrators and ensure sufficient monitoring of violence against women.
The ratification is long overdue. The UK signed the convention in 2012 following its approval by the European Parliament but has done nothing to implement the agreement in law. Eighteen other countries have already ratified it, including Romania, Serbia, France and Poland.
Since 2012 the government has made some efforts to comply with the convention’s provisions – for instance, by criminalising female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage. However, one of the major stipulations of the convention that has been woefully neglected is the adequate provision of support services for women facing domestic and sexual violence.
Significant numbers of cash-strapped refuges and rape crisis centres have been forced to close in recent years. By ratifying the convention, the government could finally be held to account for allowing the decimation of women’s support services. The I C Change campaign, the grassroots group spearheading the campaign for ratification, says: ‘The Istanbul Convention helps guarantee that we don’t have vital services disappear, but rather that we have a strong infrastructure of support. This infrastructure will allow women to thrive, rather than fight to survive.’
The End Violence Against Women coalition (EVAW) believes that ratifying the convention will offer much-needed protection to specialist women’s services. Its co-director Rachel Krys says: ‘Specialist support services, particularly for black and minority ethnic women, are in crisis. If the Istanbul Convention was in place, we could use that legislation to argue against some of the funding cuts they face.’
But EVAW also points out that ratification alone will not automatically protect sexual and domestic violence support services from further cuts. ‘We’ll be pleased if the Istanbul Convention is ratified because we’ll have another way of holding the government to account,’ Rachel Krys explains. ‘However, preventing further cuts will also require an increase in public spending and a change in attitude. We need to prioritise ending violence against women and girls.’
Sisters Uncut, the feminist direct action group that has fought against cuts to domestic violence services, says that, ‘If the UK government had already ratified this convention, as promised, their fatal austerity cuts to domestic violence services would never have happened.’ The group is determined ‘to continue to use direct action to demand that both central and local government provide life-saving support for domestic violence survivors’.
There are many steps until the bill is enshrined in UK law. If it goes through, it will provide domestic and sexual violence support services with an unprecedented level of legal protection. Without this protection, funding for these services will inevitably keep diminishing as the government continues to pursue cuts in this area.