Ukraine has (finally) ratified the Istanbul Convention. Will gender destroy the family now? No! We explain why

Kateryna Kovalenko
Yevhen Spirin
Ukraine has (finally) ratified the Istanbul Convention. Will gender destroy the family now? No! We explain why

Ukraine signed the Istanbul Convention in 2011, but ratified it only in June 2022. On June 18, President Volodymyr Zelensky submitted a bill, and on June 20, 259 MPs voted in its favor. The document should primarily protect women who have suffered from domestic violence. Critics have spoken out against the "gender ideology" allegedly promoted by the convention. Babel correspondent Kateryna Kovalenko read the Istanbul Convention, spoke with Kateryna Levchenko, the governmentʼs commissioner for gender policy, and explained what ratification will change and what the document says about gender.

What is the Istanbul Convention?

The official title of the document is "Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence". It is called Istanbul because it was opened for signing in this city in 2011. The convention should help countries combat domestic and gender-based violence. First of all, it is about protecting girls and women. The convention text can be read here.

Will the Convention eradicate violence?

Unlikely, but will help protect its victims and punish the perpetrators. Countries that ratify the document are obliged to change their legislation so that victims are not afraid to contact the police and get help. There should be shelters for victims in the countries where they can hide and live for some time. Violence against women is recognized as a form of discrimination, and perpetrators will be imprisoned or barred from approaching victims. Those who have survived the violence will be able to receive financial compensation.

What exactly will be considered violence?

The Convention deals with two types of it: violence against women and domestic violence. The first includes any physical, psychological, economic or sexual violence, stalking, or harassment at work. Domestic violence is anything that happens between partners or members of the same family without the consent of one of them (for example, coercion to sex, marriage, abortion, circumcision, sterilization).

What will change for the rapists?

Offenders will be held criminally liable for any form of violence. Punishment will be harsher if the victims are relatives or partners, or if the act of violence was witnessed by a child.

Does Ukraine need it? Do we have a problem with domestic violence?

In 2020, more than 200 thousand people sought help because of domestic violence, according to the National Social Service of Ukraine. There were 180 thousand appeals from women, 27 thousand from men, and 2,700 from children. According to unofficial information provided by the Ministry of Social Policy, every fifth woman in Ukraine has suffered from domestic violence at least once.

Why has Ukraine not ratified the convention for so long? Who is against it?

The main opponent was the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, which includes representatives of various confessions. Also opposed were organizations that uphold so-called "traditional family values" and are usually opposed to feminist or LGBTIQ+ movements. In January 2020, 307 MPs created the association For Family Values and opposed the ratification of the Convention. Critics have said they oppose "gender ideology" and feared the Convention would destroy the family. "The Convention does not regulate family or marital relations and threatens only the abuser in the family," replies Levchenko to that.

Critics of the Istanbul Convention donʼt like the word "gender" in it. What is written there about it?

Next to nothing. The Convention defines several terms, including "gender" and "gender-based violence against women". Gender, according to the Convention, means "socially defined roles, behaviors, activities and characteristics that a society considers to be characteristic of women and men". Gender-based violence against women means that she suffers precisely because she is a woman. There is no word on sexual orientation or same-sex relationships in the Istanbul Convention.

Which countries have already ratified the Convention?

The Convention was opened for signing in 2011. Since then, it has been signed and ratified by 35 countries (including Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Italy, Spain, Germany, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Turkey, France, Switzerland, and Sweden). Russia and Azerbaijan have not signed or ratified the convention, and Bulgaria has declared the convention unconstitutional. According to Kateryna Levchenko, the greatest resistance arises in countries with strong Russian influence.

What about Ukraine?

Ukraine signed the Istanbul Convention in 2011, but ratified it only in June 2022. It did not work for ten years. In recent years, a number of changes have been made to Ukrainian legislation to protect women from violence. In 2017, the parliament passed the Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence, in 2019 — amended the Criminal and Criminal Procedure Codes. They added responsibility for forced marriage, abortion, or sterilization — in particular, this is mentioned in the Istanbul Convention. The concept of "rape" was also defined more clearly. But the Istanbul Convention lists more crimes to be punished, says Kateryna Levchenko. "This is especially true of crimes against women. Not all of them are reflected in current Ukrainian legislation,” she said.

Who will monitor the implementation of the Convention?

The Ministry of Social Policy, which has to monitor the implementation of measures against domestic violence. But, according to Kateryna Levchenko, a body will have to be set up in Ukraine to deal separately with violence against women. Experts of the Council of Europe will monitor Ukraineʼs compliance with its commitments.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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