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Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence through international standards


A side event at the 56th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women co-organised by the Council of Europe, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and the Permanent Mission of Turkey to the United Nations


Speech by the Deputy Secretary General, Maud de Boer-Buquicchio


New York, 27 February 2012


Words matter. Looking for the etymology of some words is like making a discovery trip into the inner depths of human history and nature.

Let’s take the word “domestic”. Domestic comes from domus, which means ‘house’ in Latin. In Ancient Rome, the domus was ruled by the dominus, the ‘pater familias’ who dominated in all matters related to his household (including his wife, his children, his slaves and the objects inside the house).

In Ancient Rome, the law put women under men’s control and authority: no right to property, no access to justice, no voting rights for women. According to Cicero, women were placed under the control of guardians “because of their innate weakness”.

Some 28 centuries later, at least in Europe, we have removed most of those incredible laws, achieving a “de iure” gender equality. But the reality is that men still dominate today’s political, economic and social life. The unacceptable extent of violence against women is an expression of this domination. Women and girls are victims of psychological and physical violence, murder, rape, genital mutilation, sexual harassment, forced marriage, forced abortion and sterilisation. Just because they are women.

Gender-based violence is an issue in every continent, country and town. It is an issue in every context: at work, in the street, in the media, at home. And should therefore be an issue of concern for every government, parliament and citizen.

The Romans also made a difference between domus and forum (the private and the public life). Historians quote Cicero as the first to say that the home should be a “safe haven”. It seems, by the way, that he wrote that after somebody tried to kill him at his home.

Have things evolved since? Unfortunately not. The home is the theatre of many abuses. The millions of victims are mostly women and children, but it can also be anyone in a position of vulnerability, including people with disabilities or the elderly. Abuse may occur in the privacy of someone’s home, but it is never a private matter. On the contrary, it should be a public concern.

We cannot wait another 28 centuries to make sure that women and homes are safe from fear and safe from violence. This is precisely why the Council of Europe adopted last year its Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. I am very pleased to share this table with the Deputy Minister of Family & Social Policies of Turkey, Ms Aşkın Asan. Our convention was opened to signature in Istanbul and the Turkish parliament has been the first to ratify it. I hope that women in Turkey and Turkish society will soon benefit from its positive impact.

The Istanbul Convention marks indeed an important step forward to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence and put an end to impunity. It is the first legally binding instrument in Europe on violence against women and domestic violence and in terms of scope, it is the most far-reaching international treaty in this field. For the first time in history, it is made clear that violence against women and domestic violence can no longer be considered as a private matter but that states have an obligation to prevent violence, protect victims and punish the perpetrators.

The Convention creates an extremely comprehensive legal framework to prevent violence against women and domestic violence, protect victims and punish the perpetrators. By accepting the Convention, governments are obliged to change their laws, their policies and their practices, taking practical measures and allocating resources to create a zero tolerance zone for violence against women and domestic violence. It also introduces a whole new approach to violence prevention and victim protection by requiring all relevant actors to co-operate and co-ordinate in order to weave a net of safety around the victim: criminal justice, police, social and health services, child protection agencies, shelters etc.

In essence, it is a renewed call for greater equality between women and men, which also seeks to change the hearts and minds of individuals by calling on all members of society, in particular men and boys, to change attitudes.

I warmly invite you to discover the text of this convention which I cannot describe in detail now. The leaflet we have distributed is a good introduction to its main features. Let me just underline a few of them:

FIRST: Governments which ratify the treaty will have to criminalise and prosecute acts of violence that all too often go unpunished: rape, physical and psychological violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, sexual harassment, forced abortion and forced sterilisation, honour crimes.

SECOND: Excuses on the grounds of culture, custom, religion or so-called “honour” will no longer be acceptable. Introducing specific criminal offences makes it clear that suffering any of these is not a private problem but a police matter.

THIRD: The State has the obligation to provide services for victims of violence. These include shelters, around-the-clock helplines, as well as medical and legal counselling. And these services need to be available to all women, in the countryside and in big cities, and with no strings attached.

FOURTH: Governments have to invest in extensive training for the police, the prosecution services and the judiciary to make sure they treat women victims with respect for their dignity and to avoid secondary victimisation.

FIFTH:  The Convention contains a range of provisions about prevention, protection, provision of services and prosecution to ensure the rights of children that are victims of, or have witnessed violence, are promoted and protected.

SIXTH: The Convention will make our societies a safer and better place for migrant women, women asylum-seekers and women refugees. Its text prohibits discrimination on the grounds of migrant or refugee status when it comes to implementing its provisions.

SEVENTH: The Convention ensures better recognition of the role of, and more support for non-governmental organisations and the civil society. Parties to the convention have the obligation to allocate appropriate financial and human resources for activities carried out by civil society.

Last but not least, the Convention foresees a monitoring mechanism that will help us to identify shortcomings in its implementation and to provide guidance in order to address the difficulties.

Let me conclude by stating the obvious: The success of the Convention will largely depend on the political will and support of governments and parliaments. It is their responsibility, and the responsibility of our societies as a whole to prevent violence, to protect victims and to prosecute the perpetrators.

In this context, let me commend the key role played by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, represented here by its President. You have certainly felt the Assembly’s commitment to this cause in Mr Mignon’s opening statement.

I recently read in a history book for small children that women’s life today is very different from what used to be in Ancient Rome. And I wondered…

What is clear, is that the Istanbul Convention provides the necessary tools for governments and our societies to assume their responsibilities and make a real difference. To date, it has been signed by 18 member states of the Council of Europe and ratified by the Turkish Parliament. Ten ratifications are required for the Convention to enter into force.

This Convention was made in Europe but it is not meant for Europe only. Non-European States can also accede to this treaty. Its provisions can be and are already being used as a reference and inspiration for laws and policies worldwide. It is not by chance that we are joining hands with the United Nations today to promote these standards. I am convinced that they are a precious tool that UN Women can use in its remarkable work worldwide.

Words matter. Not because of their origin, their beauty or their use. They matter because of the values they reveal. We have to give to the words “man”, “woman” and “home” the best of all meanings. But this will not happen until they are cleared from domination and violence.


Thank you for your attention.