Event Report : Istanbul Convention & Women’s Empowerment @ European Parliament


On 15 May 2018, European Professionals Network organised a round-table discussion on the Istanbul Convention and Women’s Empowerment at the European Parliament to tackle the issue of gender-based violence. The event was hosted by MEP Elly Schlein. The speakers and most of the participants were professionals and representatives of EU institutions, UN, NGOs and human rights organisations.


Klejdia Lazri, EU Project and Communications Manager at the European Professionals Network, introduced the discussion by highlighting the relevance of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention, which represents one of the main tools to protect and reinforce women’s rights within 46 signatory countries. The Istanbul Convention endorses the principles of women’s empowerment and recognises that the realisation of equality between women and men is a key element in the prevention of violence against women.


She also drew up the event’s agenda and the list of topics of the discussion:


  • The state of the ratification and implementation of the Istanbul Convention at EU level;
  • EU legislations and directives preventing and combating violence against women;
  • The conditions of female refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced women and girls facing discrimination and violence;
  • The link between gender-based violence and women’s employment instability, unequal distribution of power and pay gap;
  • Effective practices and campaigns aiming to promote women’s empowerment and raise awareness on gender-based violence.




Julie Ward, MEP with the Socialists & Democrats Group, initiated the debate by underlying the reasons why the Istanbul Convention’s implementation process is being difficult and why some member states, including the UK, have not yet ratified it. The implementation of the Convention requires the states to invest money and resources by providing support and protection services to victims, effectively prosecuting and rehabilitating perpetrators, giving victims the right to legal assistance and free legal aid, criminalising all forms of violence against women, including stalking, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, forced abortion and sterilisation, and finally providing healthy relationships education. However, in an era of austerity, women’s rights and gender equality often go low down in the list of priorities. In fact, UK’s conservative government cut legal aid to women and funds for shelters for abused victims as part of the austerity measures.


Ms Ward noted that the most important dimension of the Convention is its recognition of gender-based violence as a result of gender inequality, and she stressed the importance of sex and relationships education by referring to her successful report Empowering girls through education in the EU. She invited all participants to be braver, to speak the truth and do the things that they know are right, because the EU offers the chance to pass progressive reports and amendments.


She also took the time to address the abortion issue, being the pro-life lobby getting stronger and stronger in countries like Poland and Hungary. One of the main opponents to the Istanbul Convention is Bulgaria, currently holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, which stated that it will not be ratifying it, as it believes the Convention spreads false statements about gender and hidden LGBTIQ+ agenda. Ms Ward specified that by no means does the Convention have a hidden agenda advocating the recognition of a third sex or even for the legalisation of gay marriage, but even if it were true, it would not be a reason not to ratify it. She added that it is actually very problematic that the Convention does not address specific GBV experienced by the LGBTIQ+ people, and in particular trans people, and she reminded the importance of being inclusive and taking experiences of trans and non-binary people into account.


She concluded by reminding that if governments are not ratifying the Convention, not providing the resources to implement it properly and not monitoring it, the cost will be women’s lives.


Asha Allen, Policy and Campaigns Officer at the European Women’s Lobby, started with a brief introduction about the work of the European Women’s Lobby, an NGO representing 2000 women organisations across Europe and in three candidate countries: Turkey, Serbia and Macedonia. The organisation also operates the EWL Observatory on Violence Against Women, bringing together a group of 35 experts across Europe, and cooperates with the EU Coalition to End Violence Against Women and Girls, consisting in 27 organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Transgender Europe and European Disability Forum, tackling human rights and social justice issues from varying perspectives, with the collective goal of seeing the ratification of the Istanbul Convention by the EU and all the Member States.


Ms Allen explained that the Istanbul Convention is the first international treaty of this kind. It was signed by the EU in 2017, and it requires states to have a uniform standard for combating and preventing violence against women and girls and prosecuting perpetrators. She underlined that the Convention recognises that domestic violence has a gender perspective and that women and girls represent the majority of victims, but it also states clearly that no one should undergo any form of violence and no one should be discriminated in any form.


Regarding the opposition to the Convention’s implementation by some member states, Ms Allen stressed that it is linked to an increasing populist, anti-EU and anti-women sentiment, which should be tackled concretely through the collaboration between civil society and institutions. At EU level, the Istanbul Convention needs to remain high in the political agenda, since violence against women is an intersecting form of discrimination, and the most pervasive violation of human rights.

Ms Allen also noted that girls and women are 27 times more likely to experience violence online, and that 9 million girls across Europe will experience some form of cyberviolence or stalking by the time they are 15. This is something that affects women’s participation in the tech industry. Furthermore, violence against women costs the EU 222 billion € a year, which should serve as an incentive to invest more in gender equality’s promotion and eradication of GBV.


She concluded by stating that the Women’s Lobby has been fortunate enough to walk alongside UN Women and the Council of Europe in some of their campaigns. She mentioned EWL’s last year event which saw the participation of the feminist icon Gloria Steinem, and reminded that women’s voices are too loud, too united and too strong to remain silent anymore, as the #metoo movement has emphasised.


Ugur Tok, Executive Director of the Platform for Peace and Justice, focused his intervention on women’s condition in Turkey. The country has been in a state of emergency since the failed coup attempt by a group within the military in July 2016, which has led to a limitation of all kinds of freedom in the country.


Mr Tok compared the 2006 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, in which Turkey ranked on average 105th out of 115 countries, to the latest one published in 2017, in which Turkey ranks 131st out of 144 countries, showing a widening of the Political Empowerment gender gap and a re-opening of the Health and Survival gender gap for the first time since 2013.


OECD’s 2017 report stated that 42% of women in Turkey have experienced violence at least once in their life. One third of all marriages are forced marriages of underage girls, and in south-east Turkey the percentage goes up to 60%. This is due to a conflict of laws in Turkey: The penal law attests that the minimum required age for a girl’s marriage is 15 years old, while the minimum age according to the civil law is 18. There are still 20.000 parents asking for a permission to marry their children under 15 years old with elder men. Statistically, 80% of the girls forced to get married are illiterate, and 97% of them drop education because of their marriage.


Another issue mentioned by Mr Tok is the imprisonment of women and mothers in Turkish jails. Following the 2016 coup attempt, 200.000 people were sacked from their jobs, and 70.000 people were arrested because of alleged coup connections. Currently there are still 7.000 academics, 15.000 primary school teachers and 35.000 police officers detained in Turkish prisons without access to a fair trial.


Mr Tok attested that, since 2016, 17.000 women have been imprisoned despite being pregnant or being mothers of new-born children. According to the Turkish law this is not permitted. However, because of the current state of emergency, the government has decided to revoke this benefit for those who are suspected of terrorism, even if they have not been sentenced yet.


The lack of hygiene, health care and privacy is a major issue for these women and their children. Moreover, they are held in pre-detention centres without the right to defend themselves by appealing to the court. These conditions represent a serious breach to human rights.




Elena Mancusi Materi, Senior Liaison Officer at UNRWA, described how UNRWA’s work is rather unique in the EU system. UNRWA directly implements its operations by providing 700 schools across the Middle East, performing 9 million patients visits every year in over 840 clinics in the region and supporting 48 women program centres. It does this by employing 31.000 staff members, who are mainly refugees themselves, serving their own communities as teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers, lawyers etc.


UNRWA has been ensuring gender parity in school enrolments since 1950s and aims at countering negative gender stereotypes through education. It also targets women throughout microfinance and job creation programs.


Ms Mancusi Materi has underlined how these results are significant in terms of empowerment, since they help achieve better standards of living and opportunities for Palestine refugees, given the surrounding conditions. In fact, women refugees living in the region are confronted with GBV exacerbated by conflict, displacement and occupation.


Ms Mancusi Materi stated that 37% of married women in Palestinian territory reported physical violence and 58% of them reported psychological violence. In Jordan, 87% of married women, aged 18 to 49, who have visited public health clinics, have reported domestic violence, while 47% of women reported psychological abuse and 98% of them reported physical abuse.


Widespread social acceptance of GBV often prevents survivors from reporting and seeking support. In the light of the above, UNRWA is fostering gender sensitive organisational change within its own structure, in order to become more gender responsive in its own operations, as well as to implement good practices for gender sensitive program implementation.


UNRWA also addresses the problem of unskilled female employment through the Gaza Job Creation Programme, which aims to reach 60% of women within its beneficiaries, focusing not only on women’s employment in every cultural sector, but also in positions which are traditionally occupied almost solely by men.


In Jordan, a participatory approach has been implemented to assess gender needs and improvement of camps, streets and public spaces. In the West Bank, an educational booklet has been distributed in schools since 2015 to teach children how to protect themselves from sexual abuse.




UNRWA has defined a priority on two levels: not only encouraging refugee women to open and seek support from its employees, but also building up capacities of its own staff and their willingness to engage into this subject. The organisation’s goal is to provide adequate responses to GBV survivors and develop preventive interventions. Based on data collected through its field offices in 2017, UNRWA has identified and helped over 40.800 GBV survivors. Moreover, its main beneficiaries and staff members have been increasingly involved in gender awareness activities, as well as information sessions on preconception care. Therefore, while the organisation is acting both at the macro and microlevel, it hopes a significant progress may be made towards the eradication of GBV and the empowerment of women.
Elly Schlein, MEP with the Socialists and Democrats Group, started her speech by talking about her recent mission to Uganda with the EP’s Development Committee, where she witnessed the dramatic situation of more than a million refugees present in the area. Out of them, 82% are women and children. In these settlements, she participated to some activities funded by the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, that aimes at empowering women by providing skills development programs and organising money savings groups.


Ms Schlein mentioned the EIGE’s Gender Equality index 2017, which revealed that 1 in 3 women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15, while 75% of women having a professional job or in top management positions have experienced sexual harassment.


Ms Schlein also referred to the link between the anti-LGBTIQ+, anti-EU, and anti-migrants movements, underlying the close tie among them and the organised way in which they operate through hate speech on internet. She stressed the importance of fighting them collectively at the political level in the institutions and in strict coordination with NGOs and civil society organisations.


Following numerous sexual harassment complaints within the EU institutions, Ms Schlein, together with some colleagues, started the #metooEU petition on the web, which gained 140.000 signatures all around Europe. The petition demands taking stronger measures against sexual abuses, like mandatory trainings for all EP staff members and MEPs, as well as an independent body to which victims could safely report.


Last September, European Parliament approved an interim resolution welcoming the signing of the Istanbul Convention by the EU, while on 26 October 2017, the EP approved a resolution on combating sexual harassment and abuses in the EU, strongly condemning such abuses and calling for an effective implementation of the existing legal framework and for the provision of stronger policies. These measures proved to be necessary, since a wide survey conducted in all member states in 2016 showed that over a quarter of respondents claimed that non-consensual sex can be justified in some circumstances.


Ms Schlein stressed that education, raising awareness and advocacy are crucial in the fight against GBV. She underlined that school programs on gender equality and against violence are fundamental, because the sooner the problem is addressed, the faster positive results will be achieved for the next generation and beyond. But their implementation is not easy, she explained by indicating the situation in Italy where, even in a city like Bologna, which has always been a home for civil and social rights, some teachers have been threatened by right-wing extremists only because they were teaching programs on gender equality in schools. It is therefore more necessary than ever for the EU institutions to send a clear political message stating that this cannot be accepted, and it will no longer be tolerated.




Ms Schlein also stressed that equal opportunities mean equal treatment when looking for a job and while working. Therefore, it is unacceptable that within the EU women are still earning on average 16% less than men. She praised a new French initiative, which forbids access to public procurements for companies that are not respecting equal pay for men and women. By taking that as an example of good practice, she stated that it will be important to put in place concrete measures to make sure that we are going in the right direction in terms of promoting gender equality, economic empowerment and fighting GBV.


Ms Schlein concluded by reminding that the EU should fully comply with the commitments undertaken with the 2030 Agenda for a Sustainable Development and the newly introduced goal on gender equality. All the governments that signed the new agenda are to be taken accountable for the achievement of its goals and targets, which means that it will be essential to monitor whether there are sufficient political will and resources to put them into practice. The overall agenda is about empowering people and fighting inequalities, and this goes through necessarily empowering women and girls, which represents the core principle of leaving no one behind.


In the Q&A session, speakers were asked what would be the first concrete measure that should be taken within the EU to change things regarding equal pay and women’s place in industry.


Asha Allen responded the question by stressing that governments and institutions should have a closer look at mainstream news, because gender and women’s issues need to be incorporated into every aspect of how we conduct ourselves in society and in politics, as well as in the working environment. She also indicated the importance of further engaging in discussion, as with more discussion comes more consensus.




Another question from the audience was about the measures to be taken for women who are seeking asylum in the EU, and whether the institutions and NGOs address the question of intersectionality.


Elly Schlein responded by mentioning a resolution passed at the EU Parliament two years ago on the conditions and needs of women refugees. One of the main measures to be taken should be the provision of adequate and separate spaces for women and men, especially for unaccompanied women or mothers with children, because there is a higher risk for them in some situations, especially when they are being held in pre-removal centres and hotspots like the ones in Greece and Italy. It would also be important to guarantee stable access to health care and psychological support, because most of the times they have suffered traumatic experiences.


Asha Allen added that an aspect often neglected about migrant and refugee women is that the migrant crisis is still ongoing, and it masks a much bigger issue which is the trafficking of women and sexual exploitation. Italy, for example, has experienced an increase in the number of young Nigerian women under the age of 16 who have been trafficked and forced into prostitution and sexual exploitation. Furthermore, the European Women’s Lobby has been highlighting the fact that migrant women, women with disabilities and women from minority communities are at a higher risk of violence because of intersecting forms of discrimination, and the Istanbul Convention acknowledges this very explicitly, which is why it is crucial to advocate for all member states and the EU to incorporate the Convention in their legislation.


Author: Klejdia Lazri