Britain reported to be attempting to weaken European pact on violence against women

// 8 March 2011

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Council of Europe logoYou might think – and I would agree with you – that the phrase “violence against women is understood as a violation of human rights” is not only glaringly obvious but also something that any government would accept as a valid part of any international pact trying to combat violence against women (VAW) and domestic violence.

It’s one line in a draft convention aimed at combating violence which has taken 47 member states nearly two years to negotiate and was about to be signed off.

And yet, according to a report in The Times today (link here, payment required for access):

British officials have astounded members of the Council of Europe with a last-minute intervention arguing that violence against women is not a violation of human rights.

Documents leaked to The Times reveal that Britain wants the suggestion taken out of the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence – and replaced with a weaker phrase. They also want to alter the document so that it applies only in peace time – and not during armed conflict.

[…] Instead, it wants “violence against women constitutes a serious obstacle for women’s enjoyment of human rights”.

Needless to say, the reported attempt to water down the pact has provoked an outcry from many quarters. José Mendes Bota, president of the Committee on Equal Opportunities at the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly is quoted as saying that any attempt to block approval of the Convention would be a “political crime“.

Kate Allen (director of Amnesty International) has called the attempt a “retrograde step” whilst Marai Larasi (Co-Chair of the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) Coalition) said:

We are stunned that the Government is now seeking to weaken the rights of women across Europe, while saying it wants to strengthen them at home.

The last part of Ms Larasi’s quote is a reference to the launch by the Home Secretary – also on International Women’s Day – of plans to tackle violence against women and girls, outlined in its document Call to end violence against women and girls: action plan.

If the report in The Times is accurate, then I would have to say that the hypocrisy of the government leaves me speechless with anger.

Comments From You

Kit // Posted 8 March 2011 at 4:20 pm

Wow, just… wow :S

The only part I can imagine any kind of logic behind is this bit:

“They also want to alter the document so that it applies only in peace time – and not during armed conflict.” – where maybe current wording makes things complicated with regards to women serving in the military on either side of a conflict. OTOH, would this mean female civilians during times of armed conflict wouldn’t be protected?

Laurel Dearing // Posted 8 March 2011 at 4:49 pm

but if its that then it shows an awful lack of understanding about the term ‘violence against women’. its not about when theres violence that happens to be against women. its about people getting a buzz out of excerting power over women, hating women, raping women, domestic violence, hitting them because theyre women, civilians being attacked to demoralise armies… not just people fighting. women can fight too. its all or none. whether we should or not is another question…

PEM // Posted 8 March 2011 at 5:06 pm

I can only assume this means they think soldiers raping civilian women and girls during war time is a legitimate and effective means of demoralising the enemy and thus should not be discouraged. It’s appalling beyond words.

DE // Posted 8 March 2011 at 5:23 pm

Is this perhaps in accordance with our UK framing of Human Rights, as seen in the Human Rights Act. In there these Rights are only enforceable against the State and not other individuals.

If a husband murders a wife, this in law is a criminal offence but it is not in legal terms a breach of her human rights.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 8 March 2011 at 6:38 pm

The aim of Tory/Lib/Dems is obvious – to reduce women’s human rights to one wherein male violence against women is not a violation of all women’s human rights but supposedly just a ‘serious obstacle’ to women’s human rights.

This is what the male-dominated right-wing government is seeking to define as male violence against women:

‘Violence against women constitutes a serious obstacle for women’s enjoyment of human rights.’ This definition clearly weakens women’s human rights wherein they just become a ‘serious obstacle’ not a direct violation of all women’s right not to be subjected to male violence.

So in effect male dominated government is claiming male violence against women is just a ‘serious obstacle’ rather like individuals experience ‘serious obstacles ‘ whenever they venture out of their homes into the public sphere!

The devil as always is in the detail and clearly our wonderful male-dominated government is determined to maintain male control and male domination over all women at any cost. That is why UK government is attempting to derail this very important document.

It is never ‘people’ committing violence against women – it is men who are overwhelmingly responsible but of course we mustn’t name the sex of perpetrators who commit violence against women must we?

I wish the same hiding tactics could be used whenever women are victims of men’s violence but as always it is essential women survivors have their sex identified whereas men continue to remain hidden. We always know a woman was subjected to rape/sexual assault but we rarely learn a male(s) subjected a woman to rape/sexual assault. Passive use of language ensures continued invisibilisation of men as a sex.

DE // Posted 8 March 2011 at 6:57 pm

Re the above by Drew :- “We always know a woman was subjected to rape/sexual assault but we rarely learn a male(s) subjected a woman to rape/sexual assault”

As the offence of rape involves an un-invited penis, it follows that a male must be incriminated in a rape at some point of the offence.

JKBC // Posted 8 March 2011 at 7:17 pm

I was just writing about this; it’s absolutely outrageous. I couldn’t believe it was 2011 and I was having to write Women are human. Therefore, women’s rights = human rights…(Right to life, liberty and security of person, Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

It makes me so angry. I’m not even a woman… but this is a shameless attack on the rights and humanity of anyone legally classified as female (and a few who aren’t). It’s breathtaking.

Hannah // Posted 8 March 2011 at 7:54 pm

This is really really shocking. There was a letter from a number of women’s and human rights groups about it in the Guardian today.

Does anyone know why the Government has been arguing for this? I just can’t understand what the reasoning might be behind it because it seems so contrary to normal reason, but I’m not a politician or human rights scholar so maybe I’m missing something. Any answers from them would be fascinating.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 8 March 2011 at 8:04 pm

One imagines that this is because if the govt recognises violence against woman as a violation of human rights, they might actually have to put money into fixing it!

Actually, I wonder if we should be campaigning to argue that all violence – whether against men or women – is a violation of human rights. I know this might be a bit ‘what about the menz’, but without it, we are left in a problematic situation where violence against women is a violation, but violence against men is not. Which might lead us to question whether this is special protection for women, which has historically been used to justify women’s reduction in rights (they need men to protect them, not rights to protect themselves). It might also open the door to saying women can’t fight in the military etc…

I guess we have to balance the fact that violence is perpetrated on women systematically in the pursuit of power (whether by individuals or states), which is a violation of human rights- but not all violence in which women are involved in necessarily so. I guess part of the problem is that few govts are willing to recognise that this is about power and to legislate for equality.

Lauren // Posted 8 March 2011 at 8:39 pm

Gawd I hate this country and the people in it.

Kit // Posted 8 March 2011 at 8:57 pm

@Laurel Dearing “but if its that then it shows an awful lack of understanding about the term ‘violence against women’.” – I was kinda wondering this. I find it hard to get my head around uh, legalese (???), but I would have thought the folks making big decisions and writing up these conventions would a) be able to understand what is meant by them and their implications, and b) write them in such a manner that they don’t conflict with other things, like women serving in the army – I’m being kinda arm wavey here though (not knowing the specifics), and hoping that PEM’s comment isn’t the only possible explanation :(

@Feminist Avatar – ooh, the good old “where’s the money?” (or rather “where can we save money?”) :). It’s still rubbish if they’re holding out because of that, but at least it’s less sinister than other reasons.

Pablo K // Posted 8 March 2011 at 10:36 pm

Thanks for sharing the story. I’ve tried to interpret why the Government might be doing this (

Also, @DE, in many definitions penetration by an object counts as rape. The use of a penis is not required for an act to qualify as rape. This is important since it expands the number of violations which can count. Obviously men are statistically overwhelmingly perpetrators, but it is not definitionally impossible for women to rape. And it does happen.

The International Criminal Court definition of rape is:

“The perpetrator invaded the body of a person by conduct resulting in penetration, however slight, of any part of the body of the victim or the perpetrator with a sexual organ or of the anal or genital opening of the victim with any object or any other part of the body.”

“The invasion was committed by force, or by the threat of force or coercion, such as that was caused by fear of violence, duress, detention, psychological oppression, or abuse of power, against such person or another person, or by taking advantage of a coercive environment or the invasion was committed against a person incapable of giving genuine consent.”

Ms Chin // Posted 8 March 2011 at 10:52 pm

Nice timing, given that the govt has released itsaction plan for VAWGtoday. There are 12 actions in the international section, one of which says they remain committed to CEDAW. However:

“65. Continue to support the role and contribution of the Council of Europe (CoE) in preventing and responding to VAWG.

We will continue to participate in the negotiations of the draft Convention on Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. As well as sharing our best practice, we are also learning from the experiences of other European states in their efforts to address violence”.

evie // Posted 8 March 2011 at 11:41 pm

I would imagine they are trying to avoid a situation where e.g. a woman gets attacked by her abusive ex because there were no refuge spaces for her, and sues the govt for cutting the service.

DE // Posted 9 March 2011 at 9:18 am


Thank you for your reply. I’m writing from within the jurisdiction of England & Wales. My definition of rape is therefore as contained in the relevant statute, the Sexual Offences Act 2003. From a brief glance at your blog, it seems you work in London and that as your academic interest includes use of rape within armed conflicts – I presume you are also aware of this definition. However for the benefit of others, I will paste the section here.

Sexual Offences Act 2003. Section 1. A person (A) commits an offence if—

(a)he intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person (B) with his penis,

(b)B does not consent to the penetration, and

(c)A does not reasonably believe that B consents.

So in order to be charged with rape in England and Wales, Person A needs and must use a penis to penetrate another. Therefore whenever there is a domestic news story of rape there is a more than fair assumption the suspect is a man. There are other offences contained within this Act, including assault by penetration – which includes objects, but the above is specifically the definition of rape.

But you are correct that there are other jurisdictions out there – and definitions of what constitutes a particular crime differs. One of the problems with collating statistics of crimes across a range of countries must be significantly hampered by these differences. I note that the definition of rape you provided was in the context of war crimes.

sianushka // Posted 9 March 2011 at 10:11 am

I can’t say i’m surprised. after having spend yesterday hearing about why me writing about vawg on a liberal website is a problem, i am increasingly reaching the conclusion that people just don’t care. One person commented that 1 in 4 women being victims of DV isn’t actually that much (!) and anyway, it’s worse in other countries. Another said that writing about vawg was a way of treating women as victims.

Feminist Avatar – i don’t think that it is a what about the men point to make, i think it is possible and should be possible to recognise that all violence is a violation of human rights, whilst still recognising that different kinds/systems of violence are different and requite different approaches and handling.

I feel so frustrated! I feel like there’s such a lack of care sometimes. We see the government cutting services that keep women alive, we see them refusing to sign up to anti-trafficking EU motions because disliking Europe is more important than keeping women alive – i am sick of it! and then when you dare to speak about it, or talk about it, people are too busy questioning whether you should be than actually going ‘right, ok, this is bad, lets do something.’

Ok, rant over!

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