Hamiyet, a member of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, was a 15-year-old newlywed when her husband began beating her every evening after work. He hit her when she was pregnant with each of their nine children, and he raped her almost nightly. She sought help from the police, but they always sent her back home, more concerned with preserving “family unity” than with her safety.
But a new Council of Europe convention offers protection for victims of domestic violence like Hamiyet across Europe and beyond. For two years, Human Rights Watch worked closely with other non-governmental organizations and governments to urge Council members drafting the convention to protect all potential victims, including migrant women, who are especially vulnerable. The effort succeeded.
The Convention on Domestic Violence – launched in May and so far ratified by 15 countries – calls for establishing hotlines, shelters, medical and forensic services, counseling, and legal aid services. It is designed to help the estimated 25 percent of women in the European region who experience physical or sexual abused in their lifetime.
As the most comprehensive legal means of fighting domestic violence in Europe, the convention holds countries accountable by calling for an international body to oversee national efforts to provide these services.
Our advocacy gave teeth to many of the key provisions, designed to keep women safe.
The convention, open to European countries as well as non-member states, makes sure divorced women are protected, along with unmarried women in domestic partnerships, and couples with religious marriages but no official registration. These women make up a significant part of the population at risk for domestic violence in some countries, or are excluded from some local domestic violence laws.
From the start of the negotiations, we fought to ensure that asylum seekers and migrant women would be protected. In many European countries, if a migrant woman enters on her husband’s visa as a dependent, she risks losing her visa and being deported if she reports her husband to the police. A decade of research on migrant labor issues made us an important source of information on this issue.
We also strove to ensure that the convention addressed all forms of violence or threats of violence, including stalking and female genital mutilation.
While the Council of Europe negotiations went forward in Strasbourg, Human Rights Watch stayed in constant contact with those directly involved in the proceedings, including Council representatives from Turkey, Spain, and France. We shared our preliminary research on Turkey’s dismal domestic violence situation. We also shared our report that illustrated how abused women seeking asylum in the United Kingdom often don’t get fair consideration for their claims. (The United Kingdom has yet to sign the treaty.)
A key to ramping up political pressure in support of the convention was the report we released in May on family violence and the lack of protection for women in Turkey.
The media were still buzzing with news of our findings when the Council members convened in Istanbul a week later to launch the convention. The Turkish government was the first to sign and ratify the treaty.
Hamiyet finally left her husband. She had a small apartment, but very little money. Her husband stalked her, and the police were still no help. But she had the support of her daughter, a nurse, who encouraged her to leave her marriage. Hopefully, The Domestic Violence Convention will help her, showing both mother and daughter that women can successfully seek help.
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