The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention, is the most comprehensive international legal instrument setting out binding commitments to prevent and combat violence against women. Thirty-four Council of Europe member states have ratified it, twelve have signed it – together with the European Union – and it serves as a basis for action by many countries outside Europe.
The Istanbul Convention aims to protect women against all forms of violence and to prevent, criminalize and eliminate violence against women and domestic violence; to contribute to the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, to promote equality between women and men and to empower women; to protect and support all victims of violence against women and domestic violence.
Romania signed the Istanbul Convention in June 2014 and ratified it in 2016, with the Convention entering into force in September 2016.
The Convention recognises violence against women as a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination. It is the first international treaty to contain a definition of gender: gender is the role society assigns to men and women, as well as the behaviour, activities and attributes considered appropriate for women and men. It also introduces a number of offences, such as forced sterilisation, female genital mutilation and psychological violence. Not criminalised until now, these will have to be made offences under the laws of the Convention’s signatory states. Protective measures include setting up specialised services to provide medical care and psychological and legal counselling for victims and their children, and providing adequate shelters for victims.
The Convention covers women and girls from all walks of life, regardless of age, race, religion, social origin, migrant status or sexual orientation, to name but a few. The Convention recognises that there are groups of women and girls who are often at greater risk of violence and states must take measures to ensure that their specific needs are addressed.
The Istanbul Convention addresses the specific residence status difficulties faced by many migrant women when they become victims of crimes such as domestic violence or forced marriage. It introduces the possibility of granting migrant women an autonomous residence permit if they are caught in an abusive relationship, as their residence status depends on that of the abusive spouse or partner. This allows victims of domestic violence to leave the relationship without losing their residence status.
For victims of forced marriages, the convention creates an obligation to allow migrant women to regain their residence status if they have left their country of residence for longer than is legally permitted because they were forced to marry abroad and cannot return. However, as a non-participation clause, States Parties may reserve the right not to be bound by this provision.
Asylum law has long failed to address the differences between women and men in terms of why and how they are persecuted. This gender blindness in determining refugee status and international protection has led to situations where the claims of women fleeing gender-based violence have gone unrecognised.
One of the reasons migrant women seek asylum is to flee gender-based violence, but it is often impossible for them to disclose relevant information during a refugee status determination process that does not respect cultural sensitivities. In addition, unaccompanied women are often exposed to sexual harassment and sexual exploitation and cannot protect themselves. In order to address the specific issues related to women asylum seekers, the Istanbul Convention establishes the obligation to introduce gender-sensitive procedures, guidelines and support services in the asylum process.
Another provision included in the Istanbul Convention reaffirms the obligation to respect a well-established principle of asylum and international refugee protection, namely the principle of non-refoulement. The Convention establishes the obligation to ensure that victims of violence against women in need of protection, regardless of their status or residence, are not returned to any country where their lives would be endangered or where they would be in danger of being subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.