22nd Mar 2018


Istanbul Convention: clearing away the fog of misconceptions

  • The Istanbul Convention does not 'promote' same-sex marriage, legally-recognise 'third sex' status, nor give 'refugee' status to transgender or intersex people (Photo: Grzegorz Żukowski)

As we mark International Women's Day, we notice with some dismay that several Council of Europe member states are showing 'cold feet' in moves to ratify the Council of Europe's convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (more commonly known as the Istanbul Convention).

Almost every single member of the Council of Europe has signed the treaty. As of this writing, 28 have ratified it.

But recent misconceptions about its purpose as 'ideologically biased"' or against 'traditional family values' are spreading like fog in some countries.

This fog needs to be cleared because the stakes are too high.

Our treaty – considered a gold standard by the UN – provides essential tools to uphold the basic human right of women to live a life free from violence.

It forces no 'gender ideology' on states. It does differentiate between the terms 'sex' and 'gender'.

Sex refers to biological characteristics that define humans as female and male, while gender encapsulates socially constructed roles, behaviours, and activities that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.

Thus, gender refers to expected roles for women and men – and how too often these roles are defined by out-dated stereotypes that can make violence against women, intimidation and fear more 'acceptable'.

Does that mean that our convention opposes traditional gender roles? Of course not.

If women want to be stay-at-home mothers while their husbands work, the convention raises no objection: it was never designed to force women or men to live in certain ways.

The education that the convention does require is to end stereotypes based on the idea that women are inferior to men – and that it is okay for them to be beaten.

For instance, Article 14 of the convention requires states to include teaching material on non-stereotyped gender roles in formal curricula and to empower girls and boys to pursue options in life not limited to traditional roles for men (for example solely as breadwinners) and for women (solely as mothers and carers).

We must refute other related misconceptions that thicken the fog.

For example, the education obligation does not imply that states should include teaching material on sexual orientation and gender identity.

A common misconception is that the Istanbul Convention obliges states to have lessons at schools about sexual orientation. It does not.

Some claim that our convention promotes same-sex marriage, but it makes no reference to the legal recognition of such marriage. Certainly the Council of Europe supports LGBTI rights. The convention opposes any form of discrimination. But the subject of same-sex marriage is outside the legal scope of the Istanbul Convention.

Nor does the convention oblige states to legally recognise a third sex under domestic law, as some people mistakenly believe.

The term "third sex" – sometimes referred to as third gender or intersex – refers to people who do not identify as either male or female.

Yet another misconception is that the convention calls for a new "refugee status" for transgender or intersex persons, as has been sometimes erroneously reported. This is not true, either.

It asks for asylum procedures to be carried out in a way that allows women to explain the reasons why they are fleeing.

Whether this is because of rape to silence political expression, or because of the fear of being subjected to female genital mutilation, it takes time to say so.

All the convention wants in this regard is to offer the space to women to open up, because their stories and experiences might qualify for refugee status under the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees.

Bridget O'Loughlin is executive secretary of the Istanbul Convention at the Council of Europe. More on her work about the Convention in this video interview.

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