Which support services should victims of gender-based violence have access to according to the Istanbul Convention?

Which support services should victims of gender-based violence have access to according to the Istanbul Convention?

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Victims of gender-based violence should have access to a wide array of services, and this obligation has been enshrined in the Istanbul Convention. But which exactly are these services?

The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention, is a treaty on human rights of the Council of Europe. It was opened for signatures in 2011 and, by 2022, 34 member-states have ratified it, including Serbia.

The obligations of the Istanbul Convention follow the goals such as the prevention of violence against women, protection of victims, prosecution of perpetrators, as well as implementation of related comprehensive and coordinated policies in this area. In the case of domestic violence, the Convention specifically asks states to ensure the safety and support of victims. The Convention also has a monitoring mechanism, the Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO). This Group is a specialized independent body which publishes evaluations and recommendations specific to countries, aimed to improve the position of women and children victims of gender-based violence.

According to the Council of Europe, the Istanbul Convention has fostered political will to invest in combatting violence against women: “Istanbul Convention is thus creating momentum for the expansion not only of legislation and support services to reach a wider range of women and girls at risk of gender-based violence but is firmly establishing the notion that it is a state obligation to respond to all forms of violence against women and girls in all their diversity”. 


What does “support” mean for the Istanbul Convention?

The Istanbul Convention provides a detailed roadmap for the protection of victims of gender-based violence. Article 20 of the Istanbul Convention about general support services states that the “parties shall take the necessary legislative or other measures to ensure that victims have access to services facilitating their recovery from violence. These measures should include, when necessary, services such as legal and psychological counselling, financial assistance, housing, education, training and assistance in finding employment.” Besides these general support services, the Istanbul Convention also refers to the need for assistance in individual/collective complaints (Article 21); specialist support services (Article 22); telephone helplines (Article 24); support for victims of sexual violence (Article 25); and protection and support for child witnesses (Article 26). In regard to safe houses, the Convention is also very clear in Article 23 and states that parties shall take the necessary legislative or other measures to provide for the setting-up of appropriate, easily accessible shelters in sufficient numbers to provide safe accommodation and proactive assistance to victims of violence, especially women and their children.

What is the approach to housing support that the Istanbul Convention dictates?

Not only does the Istanbul Convention list specific support structures that must be made available to victims it also dictates the kind of approach that must be followed. Therefore, in Article 18, it states that support measures must fulfil the following criteria:

- be based on the understanding of violence against women and domestic violence from a gendered perspective, and focused on the human rights and safety of the victim;

– be based on an integrated approach which takes into account the relationship between victims, perpetrators, children and their wider social environment;

– aim at avoiding secondary victimisation;

– aim at the empowerment and economic independence of women victims of violence;

– allow, where appropriate, for a range of protection and support services to be located on the same premises (so that victims do not have to go to different locations to exercise just one of their many rights);

– address the specific needs of vulnerable persons, including child victims, and be made available to them.

So not only should victims have access to a wide array of support services, these must be delivered through an approach that aims at the full empowerment and independence of victims and on the understanding that gender-based violence is a human rights issue. Therefore, it is not enough to simply provide victims with shelter or access to legal support, they must be given the tools and resources to be able to overcome victimization and have the opportunity to define their future life path.

In the Explanatory Report of the Istanbul Convention, the form of the support system and its approach are further detailed. In the case of safe houses, paragraphs 133-135 specify that the purpose of the shelters is to: “ensure immediate, preferably around-the-clock, access to safe accommodation for victims, especially women and children when they are no longer safe at home.” It further states that “temporary housing alone or general shelters such as those for the homeless, are not sufficient and will not provide the necessary support or empowerment”. Therefore, it recognizes that providing safe housing is not simply a matter of providing temporary shelter and nothing else, but it should be considered as part of a whole package of care and support to the victims.

In addition, the Explanatory Report clearly states that specialized women’s shelters are a necessary solution because they understand that women victims of domestic violence face a plethora of issues before they are fully equipped to resume independent life. They are also very useful because they “play a central role in networking, multi-agency cooperation and awareness-raising in their respective communities”. This paragraph recognizes the importance of a gender-sensitive and integrated approach, which can provide victims with the legal and psychological resources they need to overcome victimization.

Shelters should also abide by quality standards, especially in terms of security, and should be made available in sufficient numbers so that they can provide such housing services to all victims. One specific recommendation is to have “safe accommodation in specialized women’s shelters, available in every region, with one family place per 10.000 head of population”. However, despite this general recommendation, the Report also states that in some cases higher numbers will be needed, and the shelters made available should always be according to the specific local context. Taking all that into account, the Istanbul Convention provides clear guidelines on victim support services that can be followed by signatory states and it details obligations to follow an empowerment approach, in line with the approach followed by specialized women’s shelters.  

This article was created within the project "Better support for women and children victims of violence - improving the accessibility and capacities of safe houses in Serbia" NGO ATINA is implementing in cooperation with the United Nations Agency UN WOMEN, and with the support of the European Union, within the framework of the EU-UN Women regional program to stop violence against women in the countries of the Western Balkans and Turkey entitled "Implementing norms. Changing minds", financed by the European Union.

The content of this article is the sole responsibility of NGO ATINA and does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union, UN Women, their Executive Board or the member states of the United Nations.