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As it battles COVID-19, Europe is being stalked by a shadow pandemic: domestic violence ǀ View

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Last month, the United Nations warned of a "shadow pandemic" alongside COVID-19: a global rise in domestic violence.

Around the world, there has been a spike in reports of violence against women and girls during lockdowns and other restrictions, which left many women and girls trapped at home with their abusers or unable to easily access safety and support services.

In Poland, the situation for women and girls may become even more dangerous after the country’s Minister of Justice, Zbigniew Ziobro, announced last weekend a proposal to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, a landmark European treaty to prevent violence against women, including domestic violence.

The treaty was, he claimed, “harmful" because it “contains elements of an ideological nature” requiring schools to teach children about gender. Critics say this language masks the government’s wider desire to reinforce the patriarchy while demonising women’s rights and gender equality.

The prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said this week that the convention should be checked by the Constitutional Tribunal to see if it is in line with the Polish constitution. This may delay the decision, but it is nonetheless a worrying development, particularly because the independence of the court is highly compromised.

The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and its coalition partners are closely aligned to the Catholic Church and are actively pushing forward a neo-conservative social agenda. For a number of years, their misrepresentation of women’s rights and gender equality as what they call “gender ideology” has fuelled attacks on the rights of LGBTI people. The Istanbul Convention has long been a target for populists who endorse Ziobro’s spurious claim that it poses a threat to “traditional family values.”

Behind his words lies a profound contempt for the rights of women, girls and LGBTI people. Withdrawing from the convention would be a dangerous measure with disastrous consequences for millions of women and girls, and to organisations providing vital support to survivors of sexual and domestic violence. It sends a signal that their personal well-being and safety are not worth protecting. It would also be a retrogressive step, prohibited in international human rights law.

The surge in domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp relief the need for governments across the world to strengthen their protections for women's and girls’ rights.
Nils Muižnieks
Europew Director at Amnesty International

Official statistics, while incomplete, show a harrowing picture. According to figures from 2019, more than 65,000 women and 12,000 children in Poland reported incidents of being, or were found to have been, subjected to domestic violence. Only, 2,527 rape investigations were opened that year and NGOs estimate that the percent of reported rapes is dramatically low.

A recent Europe-wide survey found that Polish women report fewer cases of domestic violence than other EU countries. This low level of reporting to the police, as Amnesty International’s research in Europe has shown, is associated with a lack of faith in the criminal justice system and a fear of victims not being believed.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, helplines and women’s shelters across Europe have reported an alarming spike of calls from women at risk of violence due to lockdowns and other restrictive measures. Poland is not an exception. While restrictions may be needed to control the spread of the virus, states should also respond with adequate measures to ensure women's and girls’ safety. Withdrawing from the convention does exactly the opposite.

The Istanbul Convention provides some vital safeguards for women and girls. It is the first European treaty specifically targeting violence against women and domestic violence. It covers all forms of gender-based violence. States that ratified the convention - which include Poland - have an obligation to protect and support survivors of such violence. They must also establish services such as hotlines, shelters, medical services, counselling and legal aid.

To date, the convention has been signed by the vast majority of European states and the EU as a whole and ratified by 34 of them. In 2018 alone, the convention entered into force in nine countries (Croatia, Cyprus, Germany, Estonia, Greece, Iceland, Luxembourg, North Macedonia and Switzerland) and in 2019, Ireland also ratified the treaty following the historic landmark vote that put an end to the almost total ban on abortion in the country.

But among some countries, the desire to withdraw from the convention has been high on the agenda. In Turkey, for example, women’s groups are expressing concerns at the intensification of the calls to withdraw from the convention due to be discussed at the ruling party’s central executive committee on August 5. This is in the context of several brutal murders of women at the hands of men being widely reported in the media.

In other countries, such as Bulgaria and Slovakia, and most recently in Hungary, the parliaments have failed to ratify the convention based on misconceptions of the notion of “gender,” and deliberately ignoring the harmful impact of gender stereotypes in the societies that put women and girls at risk of violence.

Similar misconceptions are stalling the ratification of the convention in Ukraine where the existing laws on combatting domestic violence remain poorly implemented. Although ratification of the convention is not on the Ukrainian parliament's agenda, the country is looking into the issue after more than 25,000 people signed a petition calling on the president to initiate the ratification.

In 2018, Bulgaria’s Constitutional Court ruled that the convention was not compatible with its constitution, further perpetuating harmful misconceptions about the treaty’s scope and nature.

The surge in domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp relief the need for governments across the world to strengthen their protections for women's and girls’ rights.

Were Poland to do the exact opposite, it would send a deeply disturbing signal that ensuring that women and girls live free from violence is no longer a priority.

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