The UK must ratify the Istanbul Convention and tackle violence against women

AN estimated one in three women in the EU has experienced physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15. I’m ashamed to type that. But just as the UK is pushed closer to finally ratifying the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, Poland announces it plans to withdraw its signature.

The National

First published in The National, 13 December 2016.

Make no mistake, the Istanbul Convention is important. Signatories must guarantee minimum standards for state responsibility to women and girls, and fully address violence against women “in all its forms”. That includes protecting funding for domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centres, and counselling. The convention also mandates protection from all forms of violence against women, including domestic and sexual violence, stalking, harassment, forced marriage, female genital mutilation and forced sterilisation.

So it is a wide-ranging and much-needed move in combating violence against women. Its approval by the European Parliament was a huge success, and the UK signed up in 2012.

However, since then the UK Government has dragged its feet in ratifying the treaty. That’s why the SNP’s Eilidh Whiteford has had to take matters into her own hands and lodge a Private Member’s Bill to get it through the UK Parliament.

But Holyrood has been playing its part too, with Angela Constance MSP writing to the UK Government to request a clear timetable on its ratification. Previously, I wrote to the EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini asking for her support for the EU-wide adoption of the treaty. The message is clear: deeds, not words. Violence against women is an epidemic, and we need action at the highest level to oppose it.

Violence against women is a particularly ugly area and, too often, comes with the implication that violence against women is going to happen anyway, so here’s a checklist to abide by to ensure it doesn’t happen to you. But let me be clear: violence against women is not a naturally occurring fact of life. It occurs because someone has made a conscious decision to hurt someone else.

This was summed up perfectly by Michelle Thomson MP, whose cool, calm and clinical analysis of her own rape was one of those powerful speeches that deserves to be published in the history books for future generations to study. It’s not an easy listen, nor should it be. It’s an all too familiar tale – one of women overriding their instincts, of rape being less about sexual desire and more about the desire to inflict power and control, and of the decades of repackaging an assault in one’s own mind. Michelle delivered her speech with grace and strength, all the way to her final “I am not a victim. I am a survivor”. And Michelle was right, sharing such private information is still taboo. For her to stand up in Westminster and share such a deeply personal story in order to make us talk about the issue deserves our admiration and respect. Most importantly, we have to listen.

Michelle talked about the myth of rape from a male perspective – “surely you could have fought him off?” – and this applies to all forms of violence against women. From “why doesn’t she just leave?” to “she must have led him on”, there’s always the implication that the woman is somehow complicit in the violence against her.

During the indyref campaign I saw a lot of “work as if you live in the early days of a better world” publicity. What better example could we use than that of a world where violence against women isn’t normalised? Such a world is possible, and it starts with ending this stupid, malign, dunderheaded notion of a woman “not doing enough” to avoid violence.

I hope that the Polish Government will reconsider its decision to withdraw its signature, and I hope that the UK Government will get on with ratifying the Istanbul Convention. Until then, there’s plenty we can do at grassroots level to combat violence against women.