A Different Sort of European Union


The European nations have already declared their cooperation regarding currency, trade, and politics; now they are forming a union regarding an entirely new issue, the safety and status of women. The Istanbul Convention, otherwise known as the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, was opened for signature in May, 2011 and has since been ratified by eight member nations of the Council of Europe.

The Council of Europe is yet another organization loosely binding countries in the European geographic area and has the central purpose of promoting human rights, democracy, rule of law, and cultural cooperation among its member states. Membership in the Council of Europe is far more inclusive than membership in the European Union: the Council has 48 member states compared to the EU’s 28. With the Istanbul Convention, European states are recognizing that the current status of women’s rights in their societies warrants human rights reform.

This international cooperation opens up the conversation about gender inequality that is often overlooked in light of more egregious human rights violations in other parts of the world.  It also serves as a new model of action in the quest for equality: creating binding contracts among nations to set a world benchmark for women’s legislation.

The Istanbul Convention is unique in that it is the first legally binding piece of legislation to create a self-proclaimed “comprehensive legal framework and approach to combat violence against women.” Its main goal is elevating the issue of domestic violence to the level of a human rights violation, and subsequently requiring intense effort by governments to prevent domestic violence, support victims, and prosecute perpetrators. The Istanbul Convention also defines a set of crimes as human-rights-violating violence against women. These crimes all involve preventative action including psychological, physical, and sexual violence, stalking, forced marriage, genital mutilation, forced abortion and sterilization, and crimes against women committed under the guise of “honor.”


The comprehensive document brings to light many niche crimes that are localized to small villages within certain countries and cultures, such as genital mutilation or “honor” killings. It importantly both calls on the national government and asks for the support of neighbor countries to draft and enforce legislation to prevent these rights violations. This also serves the purpose of grouping all crimes against women together into one document, legally binding a nation to take action against all these crimes, even if certain crimes may only affect a population share so small it would not have received national attention otherwise.

So far, although 32 member states signed the Convention, only eight have ratified it so as to legally bind their governing bodies to follow all provisions outlined in the Convention. The Convention needs two more countries to ratify it before it become binding for all those who have signed. This is a great achievement and point of commendation for the signing countries, Albania, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Italy, Montenegro, Portugal, Serbia, and Turkey, and these governments are already making moves to align their legislation with the provisions outlined in the Istanbul Convention.

Italy, for example, passed legislation in August 2013 that cracked down on domestic violence, showing what Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta calls “a strong signal of radical change,” in the wake of UN Report findings that one third of all women in Italy are subject to some sort of domestic violence, including 81 murders in the first half of 2013.

The Istanbul Convention is putting women’s issues on center stage in many European countries. But different countries are taking legislative steps in scattered directions. Spain, under the control of the ruling People’s Party, seriously restricted abortion laws in December. The new law outlaws abortion in the case of fetal deformation and requires 16 and 17-year-old girls to obtain permission from their parents for the procedure. However, these reforms are only preliminary; the People’s Party states that it is working toward legal abortion only in the case of rape or risk to the mother’s health.

Conversely France, partially in response to Spain’s contracted abortion freedom, passed its most comprehensive piece of legislation regarding women’s rights in its entire history. Passed on January 22, this gender equality bill frees women from providing justification for an abortion for the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, raises women’s wages to the male par, creates stricter enforcement against domestic violence, and encourages female participation in politics. France’s bill also includes some very progressive and unusual reforms, such as banning beauty pageants for girls under thirteen, and preventing the media from displaying demeaning images of women.

Both the cooperation under the Istanbul Convention and the responding interplay between French and Spanish women’s rights laws shed light on the dynamic between EU law and individual countries’ policies. Additionally, it is interesting to note these developments in the context of the geographical proximity and open borders in the European Union. Under the new Spanish laws, women’s rights activists worry about “abortion tourism,” where women with means can travel to neighboring countries for the procedure, leaving lower-income Spaniards with only dangerous illegal clinics. This underscores the need for a benchmark standard regarding women’s rights among these nations, and the Istanbul Convention serves as a beacon of hope for meaningful cooperation; all that’s left to do is wait for more countries to take the plunge.


Anna Russo ’17 is in Berkeley College. Anna writes about women’s issues around the world, focusing on health and education. Contact her at anna.russo@yale.edu.