Building a human rights approach to ending violence against women and girls

To mark this year’s International Women’s Day, the Scottish Human Rights Commission highlights its work on the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe human rights treaty which aims to prevent and combat violence against women and girls. By Eilidh Dickson, Policy and International Officer.

The Commission is an public body, independent of the Scottish Government and accountable to the people of Scotland through the Scottish Parliament. 

As Scotland’s National Human Rights Institution, it also regularly reports to international bodies on how well Scotland is meeting a range of human rights obligations.  Our job is to assess what international human rights standards say about how people should be supported and treated, and to consider how the evidence and experiences of people in Scotland measure up against these standards.

These include the standards found in the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, which the UK ratified in 2022. It’s also known as the Istanbul Convention, after the city where it was written.

In our  recent work to inform our report to the Council of Europe on the statis of human rights enshrined in the Istanbul Convention, the Commission spoke with survivors of gender-based violence to find out how Scottish laws, policies and practices impacted their lived experiences.

We also undertook desk based  research on current policies and publicly available evidence and data. The Commission has reported to the Council of Europe that while the Scottish Government has undertaken a range of activities to eradicate violence against women and girls, the experiences of women and girls in Scotland do not yet match up the ambition of laws and policies.

The story of the Istanbul Convention

The World Health Organisation estimates that one in three women have been subjected to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. Surveys indicate that many more experience behaviour such as sexual harassment, threats of violence or psychological intimidation explicitly based on being women.

However, it took international organisations and human rights treaties some time to identify violence against women and girls as an issue for human rights. For example, when it was created in 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) did not include a standalone article on the right to be free from gender-based violence. It was largely considered to be a social problem for states to solve rather than a common, international human rights abuse.

Two key instruments in the 1990s changed this: the UN General Assembly Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination's General Recommendation 19. Both documents considered how human rights are relevant to understanding and responding to violence against women.

The Council of Europe – the international organisation that the European Court sits within – then went one step further and drafted a new human rights treaty to explicitly unpick what is involved for national governments.  That marked the birth of the Istanbul Convention, representing the most modern and comprehensive statement of what is involved in a human rights approach to violence against women and girls.

Putting human rights into practice

By joining the agreement, countries agree to take steps to Prevent, Protect, Prosecute and have Policies in response to violence against women. These are known as the four ‘Ps’ and they summarise the 81 different articles that countries have agreed to implement. These include obligations to collect data and support research in the field of violence against women.

The Istanbul Convention defines this violence as ‘gender-based’. This means that women experience violence because they are women and not seen as equal with men and boys - a breach of their human rights.

A Group of Experts on Violence Against Women, known as GREVIO, has been set up to monitor how countries are meeting the standards. Recommendations are then made, so that countries work together to give advice and make progress. The Commission submitted its reports to GREVIO to help them do this.

Our key findings

The Scottish Government and local government have a national strategy called  Equally Safe which describes how they will protect women and girls from violence. Evidence available suggests this strategy has been successful in building a shared understanding of what gender-based violence against women and girls is.

However, there is a big difference between what Equally Safe says and what women and girls say about their actual experiences. In terms of objective data, we found that  it is also difficult to say how much Equally Safe has changed things because it doesn’t have a very clear process for measuring change.

Overall, our findings suggest that there needs to be more understanding about how different groups of women and girls might need different types of support or information.  We also need more data and evidence about women and girls’ experiences and more funding for the organisations that work with victim survivors.

We also found there needs to be more information shared and better working relationships between the police and victims of crime; and that victim-survivors currently have very poor experiences of going through criminal court cases. Many of the women we spoke with described what happened to them in courts as being a story that was told about them, that did not feel true.

Finally, a significant area of concern for the Commission is that the UK Government does not agree to parts of the Istanbul Convention that protect migrant women and girls. This makes them much more unsafe should they be in situations of experiencing domestic violence, and we encourage the Council of Europe to challenge the  UK to reconsider its support for these parts of the Convention.

Here in Scotland, the Scottish Government is currently at an advanced stage in developing a new Human Rights Bill.  It has stated that its intention is to incorporate the international human rights instrument – the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Violence and all forms of Discrimination Against Women – into Scots Law.  The Commission has recommended that the Council of Europe encourage the Scottish Government to ensure that the Bill protects and upholds all of the human rights of victim-survivors of violence against women. You can read the full findings in our report to GREVIO on our website.

In women’s words

The In Our Words report, which we published alongside our report to GREVIO, was developed through discussions with three groups of women who have experienced gender-based violence. We asked them what was needed to prevent violence against women, and heard about issues such as the need for more education, improved services and a change in culture to make sure violence against women is taken far more seriously.

It was clear the women we spoke with wanted more opportunities to take part in policy decisions. They wanted to see inclusive policy making, an approach which defines a human rights based approach to ending violence against women and girls. We were inspired by the women we spoke with and thank them for their contribution.