International Women’s Day 2020

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we have an opportunity to reflect on the milestones that have been achieved, and also identify our next steps to equality.

One of the great achievements of the UK Parliament is the cross-party support for ending violence against women.

The UK is considered a leader in the fight for women’s rights on the world stage. Yet something is missing from the UK’s claim as a major player in the fight for gender equality.

The Council of Europe’s Convention on Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence – the “Istanbul Convention” – arguably the most progressive international treaty for women’s rights, remains unratified by the UK.

It is my belief that the rights of women as enshrined within the Istanbul convention are fundamental human rights. The provisions of the convention are focused on preventing domestic violence, protecting victims and prosecuting accused offenders.

The offences which must be criminalised are explicitly stated: psychological violence; physical violence; sexual violence; forced marriage; female genital mutilation; forced abortion; forced sterilisation; sexual harassment; and crimes committed in the name of so-called “honour”. As a state which prioritises human rights, these offences are of course already against the law across the UK.

In addition, Article 44 allows British offenders abroad to be tried in a UK court, meaning overseas offenders have nowhere to hide from justice. This, according to the Home Office’s third annual progress report on ratifying the convention, following my SNP colleague Dr Eilidh Whiteford MP’s successful campaign in 2017 to pass an Act of Parliament on the issue, is one of the issues the UK Government still cannot seem to reconcile with UK law. The other is an obligation to ensure support for migrant women experiencing domestic abuse – a duty at odds with the priorities of successive Tory governments.

The UK signed the Istanbul Convention on 8 June 2012, yet four Parliaments and three Prime Ministers later, the Government continues to stall on ratification and therefore is not legally bound by its provisions.

In January 2014, David Cameron said he was committed to ratifying the Istanbul Convention in the “next few months,” following the criminalisation of forced marriages. Even with the additional pressure of Dr Whiteford’s successful campaign, Mr Cameron never quite managed to see this expectation through.

For all the work his successor Theresa May did in her time as Prime Minister to being the agenda of women and girls to the forefront of UK politics, she also failed to ensure the convention was ratified.

Will it come down to Boris Johnson to sign off on this convention? The Home Office annual report claims the UK Government is “committed to ratifying the Istanbul Convention” – the same language it has used since 2014. Without a serious push from the Prime Minister, this could be another milestone missed in the push for women’s equality.