This is a translated and slightly adapted version of an article originally published in Romanian on December 23.

The Istanbul Convention – officially known as the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence – was signed by Moldova almost three years ago, in February 2017. The Moldovan authorities have promised with one voice to ratify it until the end of this year.[1] The ratification proposal was even scheduled for approval by the Chicu Cabinet on December 11,[2] but the item was abruptly stricken out of the agenda right before the meeting. What are the reasons behind this new delay? What are the authorities afraid of?

The Istanbul Convention in a nutshell

The Istanbul Convention is innovative in that it raises violence against women and domestic violence to the standard of human rights violations. It also sets up a strong framework to prevent and fight such violence. Since its emergence in 2012, the Convention was signed by 46 out of 47 Council of Europe member-states, including the EU, and 34 nations ratified it.[3] The Convention was ratified by countries with pronounced patriarchal and religious values, such as Turkey, Georgia, Spain, Slovenia, Romania, Poland, Greece or Croatia; by countries with multicultural and multiethnic societies like France or Germany; and by nations that are already doing a good job combating violence, such as Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Austria or Belgium.

How is a nation expected to act under the Convention?

The Istanbul Convention requires governments to adopt a comprehensive set of measures to combat all forms of violence against women and domestic violence.

First of all, the Convention insists on prevention, which includes measures to change attitudes, gender roles and stereotypes that make violence against women acceptable, or teach children about gender equality in schools, among others. Second, the Convention demands better protection for the victims, for example, by setting up enough shelters and helplines, providing sufficient counseling or medical services for the victims and their children, as well as social services, access to housing and education, or help in finding a job. When it comes to punishment, the Convention says that considerations of culture, tradition, religion or so-called “honor” mustn’t be accepted as excuses for letting the perpetrators off. Further, the law enforcement should intervene promptly and take such cases seriously. Finally, governments are required to integrate all the relevant policies into a comprehensive and coordinated system.

Moreover, governments should criminalize and legally sanction all forms of domestic violence, including sexual, psychological or economic, as well as sexual harassment or forced abortion, among others.

Provisions of discord

However, there is a range of conservative and religious groups that oppose the ratification of the Convention, including in Moldova.[4] They have spread falsehoods and misconceptions about the Convention, in particular in connection with the definition of “gender” included in it. Let’s briefly examine their arguments.[5]

Why does the definition of gender appear in the Istanbul Convention?

The Convention is the first international treaty to comprise a definition of gender. In the Convention, gender is defined as “socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.” The purpose of this term is not to replace the biological definition of “sex”, nor the terms “women” and “men”, but to emphasise how much inequalities, stereotypes and – consequently – violence do not originate from biological differences, but rather from a social construct, namely from attitudes and perceptions of how women and men are and should be in society.

The Convention vs sexual orientation and gender identity

A myth propagated by the opponents of the Convention is that it represents a first step to recognizing same-sex marriages.

This is not true. The Istanbul Convention does not set new standards[6] in relation to gender identity and sexual orientation, including in relation to the legal recognition of same-sex couples. The Convention does prohibit discrimination on many grounds, including gender identity and sexual orientation. This is to ensure protection and support for all victims of violence. After all, domestic violence can affect anyone, irrespective of sexual orientation or gender identity.

At the same time, the Convention condemns forced marriages, for example, the practice where women are required to marry their rapists to exonerate the latter.

Does the Convention force governments to redefine “family”?

The Convention does not define the concept of “family” and does not require governments to redefine “family” in a particular way, nor does it promote a particular type of family setting. The convention does not impose rules barring women from wanting to be mothers or housewives or men from being stay-at-home dads. Quite the contrary, it offers space by reducing stereotypes about what behaviors are appropriate for women and men.

Does the Istanbul Convention promote abortion?

The Convention only acknowledges that forced sterilization and forced abortion are specific acts of violence against women that must be condemned. Otherwise, the Istanbul Convention does not address the issue of abortion and related policies.

The Istanbul Convention and education

Another myth is related to the changes that should be implemented in the education system so that children are taught about equality. The critics of the Convention claim this would destroy Christian values and traditions.

In reality, the purpose is to promote, through the educational system, values of gender equality, mutual respect and non-violence in interpersonal relationships, non-stereotyped gender roles, the right to personal integrity and awareness about gender-based violence and the need to counter it.

This does not mean overturning all traditions and customs. Transmitting customs or beliefs from generation to generation is important. Some customs and traditional practices are, however, harmful to women and girls and may put them at risk of violence. We inherited from our predecessors sayings such as “leaving a woman unbeaten is like leaving your home unswept,” but such sayings should belong in history and folklore collections only. None of what is taught in educational institutions should lead the young generation to believe that gender-based discrimination and violence against women are acceptable.

Instead of conclusion

The situation of violence against women and domestic violence in Moldova – and we all know that statistics don’t tell by far the whole picture – indicates that the government doesn’t do enough to combat these interconnected phenomena. Clearly, the approaches employed so far have failed to significantly improve things. The authorities are hesitant to ratify the Convention, apparently listening to the groups that say “don’t change a thing.” If this is the real reason why Moldova is prevented from having an important international instrument embraced by many European nations, it’s a shame. The real shame.

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  1. The Republic of Moldova has committed to ratifying the Istanbul Convention in a number of documents. For example, the Action Plan to implement the Association Agreement with the EU expressly requires the ratification. This obligation is also contained in the 2018-2022 Human Rights Action Plan and the 2018-2022 Strategy to Prevent and Combat Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence; ↩︎

  2. Azi guvernul a amânat aprobarea Convenției de la Istanbul..., fb.com/DoinaGherman.MD ↩︎

  3. Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, wikipedia.org ↩︎

  4. 5 mii de semnături împotriva Convenției de la Istanbul, youtube.com ↩︎

  5. The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention): Questions and answers, coe.int ↩︎

  6. The principle of non-discrimination on grounds of gender identity or sexual orientation builds on legal obligations that originate in other legal instruments, first and foremost the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 14: prohibition of discrimination; Protocol No.12) and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights (see for example Oliari v. Italy, 2015, Ratzenböck and Seydl v. Austria, 2017), as well as Council of Europe Recommendation CM/Rec(2010)5 on measures to combat discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. ↩︎