What does Ukraine’s ratification mean for the future of the Istanbul Convention?
On June 18, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy submitted legislation for the country’s ratification of The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence—otherwise known as the Istanbul Convention—to the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s Parliament. Not even two days later, Ukraine’s Parliament voted to ratify this international treaty.
Feminist activists and policymakers worldwide have lauded the Istanbul Convention as a landmark treaty for the advancement of women’s rights and gender equality. The Convention goes further than previous international treaties addressing violence against women to include a broad definition of gender-based violence that incorporates everything from physical and sexual violence to stalking, harassment, psychological violence, and reproductive violence.
Many may see the ratification of a milestone international convention to protect women and girls from violence as the opposite of controversial, especially at a time when invading Russian forces are committing mass gender-based atrocities and war crimes against Ukrainians. Yet, over the past 11 years, an initial eagerness to sign on to the Convention has given way to a growing trend across Eastern Europe: the demonization of the Convention and moves to withdraw from the Convention. Signing the once widely touted treaty amongst European states has taken on a new meaning in recent years as conservatives across Europe have mounted an organized opposition against the treaty as part of the so-called “anti-gender” movement.
The Ukrainian government decided to ratify this international treaty at a time when ratification has stalled in many European countries in the face of conservative backlash, and some former ratifying countries are revoking their ratifications. Why, then, during a bloody war with an invading Russian military, did Ukraine take the time to ratify an international treaty to protect women and girls from violence that has seemingly never been less popular in the region? And what does Ukraine’s ratification mean for the future of the Istanbul Convention?
The Istanbul Convention and Its Opponents
The Istanbul Convention first opened for signatures in 2011. However, shortly after countries began signing, it came under attack by conservatives and particularly religious leaders throughout Europe for the use of the term “gender,” defined in Article 3(c) of the Convention as “the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.” Religious conservatives oppose this definition of gender as a social construction, insisting that only biological sex exists.
Conservative politicians and political parties have taken up this issue, and used opposition to the Istanbul Convention as a rallying point to oppose issues like feminist activism in general, the rights of LGBTQ+ people, and what they refer to as “gender ideology.” This movement has been particularly powerful in Eastern Europe, where it has extended beyond opposition to the Convention itself to opposing sex education in schools, the funding of gender studies programs at universities, reproductive freedoms, the European Union’s migration policies and gender mainstreaming policies, and LGBTQ+ rights.
In each national context, conservatives create different negative narratives around “gender” that they believe will resonate within their own national environments. But across the region, nationalist elements underpin their opposition to the Convention as they make outlandish claims about how ratifying the Convention will lead to the destruction of the nuclear family and foreign influence by Europe and the West.
In Poland, where the Convention was ratified in 2015, the ruling conservative party has implemented measures to withdraw from the Convention. And in March of 2021, Turkey, the first country to sign the Convention and the country for which the Istanbul Convention is named, became the first country to formally withdraw from the international treaty. Defending the withdrawal, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan argued that the Convention would destroy the “traditional family” and “normalize homosexuality.”
Amid this strong conservative backlash against the treaty, Ukraine has not only expressed an intention to abide by the Convention but will bring the country’s laws in line with the treaty to prevent and prosecute acts of gender-based violence. The Ukrainian Parliament’s ratification comes amid wide-scale reports of Russian war crimes and gender-based violence related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Not only are there growing reports of sexual violence committed by Russian occupying forces, but there have also been reports of trafficking for sexual exploitation of people fleeing Ukraine, among the other increased dangers that women face while living in and fleeing war zones as refugees.
While women’s rights and gender equality policies have come under attack in Europe and throughout the rest of the world in recent years, Ukraine’s ratification of the Istanbul Convention is a crucial move demonstrating the vital link between gender equality, democracy and freedom. In particular, Ukrainian feminists and the LGBTQ+ community know what is at stake if Ukraine does not repel Russia’s invading forces.
In recent years, Russia has clamped down on liberal activism and targeted women’s rights and the rights of gender and sexual minorities living in Russia. In 2013, the Russian government criminalized the distribution of material that discusses “non-traditional sexual relationships,” which resulted in the arrest of many LGBTQ+ citizens. And in 2017, domestic violence was decriminalized in the country. Thus, for Ukrainians, and particularly for women and gender and sexual minorities, the defense of Ukraine means more than territorial integrity—it means freedom.
Is There a Future for the Istanbul Convention?
Over the past four months, we have watched as countries across Europe and the world have rallied behind Ukraine, imposing economic sanctions on Russia and strengthening the NATO alliance. East European countries, in particular, have called for solidarity against Russia and stronger actions against the country, as they feel nearest to the threat of a Russian invasion. It is also in these countries where the opposition to the Istanbul Convention is currently the strongest, such as in Poland.
Thus, Ukraine’s ratification of the Convention not only sends a message to the Russian invaders, but also to other countries in the region about the necessity of gender equality policies and a reminder of how precarious these protections can be. Ukraine’s ratification of the Istanbul Convention and its signaling of support for gender equality legislation could be grounds for other countries to reconsider their stance toward the Convention, as they rally around in support of Ukraine and against an authoritarian aggressor.
Feminists across Eastern Europe have long highlighted the interconnectedness of gender equality and democratic governance in their advocacy work. It seems that in Ukraine, these calls are now being acted upon after many years of urging on the part of Ukrainian feminists for their government to ratify the Convention. It should also remind us all that, four months into this deadly invasion, supporting Ukraine is crucial in the fight for democracy and freedom for all.