Why are governments weakening protections against domestic violence?

The coronavirus pandemic has sets off spikes in domestic violence around the world, including in Europe. Organizations serving victims of abuse reported spectacular increases the number of calls, emails and website visits. Faced with movement restrictions and social distancing measures, many people affected by domestic violence are trapped in their homes with their abusers, struggling to access necessary support networks and services.

Safeguards against domestic violence are under threat

In this context, it is particularly alarming that several European states have recently taken steps to let the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, abbreviated Istanbul Convention. The Istanbul Convention, which entered into force in August 2014, requires states parties to pass laws that criminalize psychological and physical violence against women, implement preventive measures (such as public education, training for relevant professionals and treatment programs for offenders), and regularly monitor progress.

Saskia Brechenmacher

Saskia Brechenmacher is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge and a member of the Democracy, Conflict and Governance program at Carnegie, where her research focuses on gender, civil society and democratic governance.


In May 2020, the Hungarian legislature refuse to ratify the convention, which the Hungarian government had already signed in 2014. Last month, a Polish government narrowly reelected announcement that he also considered withdrawing from the treaty and would submit the convention to the country’s Constitutional Court for examination. In Turkey, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) also threatened to quit the convention, arguing that Turkey had been wrong to endorse it in the past.

The timing of these movements is no coincidence. As the coronavirus pandemic has spread, the three governments have research to mobilize their supporters along established cultural fault lines, perhaps to deflect attention from the wider socio-economic crisis – and to take advantage of the fact that restrictions linked to the pandemic have made it harder to resist. their opponents.

Governments claim to defend family values

In all three countries, ruling conservative governments say they are not seeking to erode protections against domestic violence: instead, they have attacked the convention to endanger traditional family structures and gender roles. The convention’s definition of the term ‘gender’ as socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities and attributes has emerged as a particular flashpoint, with critics claiming (falsely) that this framing undermines the biological distinctions between women and men. men.

For example, the Hungarian government claims that the treaty promotes “destructive gender ideologies”. Polish Minister of Justice called the treaty “an invention, a feminist creation aimed at justifying gay ideology”, while Turkish President Recep Tayyp Erdogan argued that the Convention was not in tune with “the values ​​of Turkish society”. In denouncing the convention, these governments are following a regional pattern: the Bulgarian Constitutional Court has ruled that it unconstitutional in 2018, citing the treaty definition of gender; Slovak legislature rejected ratification of the Convention in November 2019. The Constitutional Court of Latvia is currently examine the compatibility of the treaty with the country’s constitution.

How the “anti-gender” movement frames its argument

The growing backlash against the Istanbul Convention and its definition of gender is not an isolated phenomenon. Instead, it reflects the success of a transnational movement which has spread across Europe, Latin America and other parts of the world over the past decade. Supporters of this movement see themselves in a global battle against what they describe as “gender” or “gender ideology”. Although their campaigns take different forms in different countries, they are defined by important similarities in rhetoric and tactics.

First, they use the term “gender ideology” – initially popularized by the Vatican – to gather a range of contentious social issues seen as threatening gender distinctions and traditional family structures, from abortion access and LGBTQ rights to sex education in schools, gender studies departments in universities and gender mainstreaming policies in state bureaucracies. The ambiguity inherent in the concept of gender ideology allows it to be easily adapted to different cultural and political contexts and to political debates. Second, anti-gender campaigns bring together a broad coalition of actors whose interests are otherwise not necessarily aligned, including Catholic and evangelical religious movements, mainstream conservatives, various civil society groups, and populist parties. far right. Third, they combine grassroots mobilization with strong transnational links and networks, such as the World Congress of Families. Finally, these movements often invoke a new universalism, or “common sense”, presenting itself as the defenders of an alternative societal and political consensus centered on the protection of the traditional family, the nation and religious rights.

Some analysts have presented the growing success of these movements as a backlash against advances in gender equality and sexual minority rights – a kind of moral panic triggered by new threats to traditional gender roles. Yet this account does not fully explain their political success. As different scholars have it documented, Contemporary anti-gender movements differ from earlier forms of resistance against LGBTQ and reproductive rights in that they make the terms “gender” or “gender ideology” meaningful for a much broader critique of liberal democracy, neoliberalism and universal human rights frameworks. Critics of “gender ideology” are not only seeking to transform the wording of the Istanbul Convention to reflect a different definition of gender, they are seeking to transform the broader liberal democratic value system that gave birth to the treaty in the first place.

Invested in this broader sense, “genre” becomes a powerful vector for different forms of protest organization, in particular in a context of increased political, cultural and economic insecurity. It creates new alliances that are sometimes counterintuitive, for example between anti-LGBTQ groups and anti-Islamist populist movements in Europe. And it allows governments in polarized societies to piss off their base of support along cultural rifts while distracting from broader governance failures, including during the coronavirus pandemic.

Women push back

As anti-gender movements gain political prominence, they also encounter new forms of resistance. In Europe, attacks by right-wing governments against the Istanbul Convention have not gone unopposed. Instead, the women are backing down, defying the coronavirus pandemic to express their displeasure.

In Poland, demonstrators took to the streets to rally against the government’s plan to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. Polish women have already succeeded repulsed against the efforts of the ruling Law and Justice party to further tighten the country’s already tight abortion restrictions. These mass protests forged new informal and formal ties between activists who helped them continue to demonstrate. Still, ongoing restrictions linked to the pandemic make it harder for women to push back on government plans, forcing activists to get creative: During the spring lockdown, women tenuous up protest placards outside supermarkets to demonstrate against new restrictions on women’s rights that were being discussed in parliament. In Hungary, which has the lowest percentage of women legislators in Europe, women deputies of the opposition after the vote of the Istanbul Convention posters displayed presenting sexist comments from their male colleagues at protests.

In Turkey, Edogan’s announcement that he would consider withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention came as women across the country were already mobilize to protest the recent murder of Pinar Gultekin, a 27-year-old university student, the latest in a series of femicides that have doubled in the country since 2012. In early August, tens of thousands of women came out in protest against Turkey’s potential withdrawal from the treaty, chanting “the choice is ours, the decision is ours, the night is ours, the streets are ours”. Turkish activists have also launched a very successful global campaign social media campaign to highlight violence against women in the country and demand greater government protections. Interestingly, rather than reinforcing existing political divisions, Erdogan’s plans angered women across the political spectrum, including those of his party, several of whom contributed to the signing of the Istanbul Convention by Turkey. The government’s decision may therefore have the unintended effect of uniting rather than further dividing the women’s movement in Turkey.

A matter of life and death

Across Europe, activists and protesters point out that debates on the Istanbul Convention are far from theoretical: on the contrary, governments’ failure to fully implement the treaty continues to put women’s lives at risk. . In Turkey, at least 474 women have been murdered in 2019, many of them by male partners, ex-partners or relatives. Women’s rights organizations find that existing protective measures are insufficient and ineffective. In Poland, politicians have repeatedly claimed that the country already offers more protections to women than the Istanbul Convention, avoiding the fact that last year Polish lawmakers attempted to narrow the country’s definition of domestic violence as occurring only when spouses have been beaten more than once. Probably due to a lack of confidence in the country’s criminal justice system, Polish women continue to report fewer cases domestic violence to the police than women in other EU countries. And in Hungary, Human Rights Watch has documented widespread government shortcomings in preventing and combating domestic violence.

During the coronavirus pandemic, observers raised fears of both democratic retreat and the regression compared to gender equality wins. The ongoing debates around the Istanbul Convention show that these two trends are intimately linked: the mobilization against “gender ideology” must be understood in a broader context of upheaval and democratic crisis. Yet recent events in Turkey and Hungary also show that even though populist and authoritarian governments have armed the concept of gender to consolidate their support, they face new waves feminist activism and citizen resistance.

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