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Time to Ratify the Istanbul Convention

8 Dec 2016

Today (8th December 2016) MPs debated bringing home additional rights for survivors of sexual violence. The debate is very timely, with sexual violence and abuse rarely out of the news. Official figures show that young women are the most targeted group for this crime, with almost 10% of 16-19 year old women experiencing sexual assault in the last year. [1] 

It is well known that survivors of sexual violence are increasingly coming forward to report to the police. What is less well-known is that behind the scenes in every local community survivors, most of whom do not report, often face waiting lists for Rape Crisis support; around 75% of Rape Crisis Centres receive no local NHS funding whatsoever,[2]  despite the ongoing impact of sexual violence on physical and mental health.

Rape Crisis England & Wales were delighted when the UK Government signed the Istanbul Convention in 2012 signalling its intention to take long-term and wide-ranging action on sexual and other violence with other partners in the Council of Europe (a separate body from the European Union).[3] This is an issue which the former Prime Minister last year described as a ‘national threat’[4] and the current Prime Minister took concerted action on as Home Secretary.

However, since 2012 the UK Government’s has not  ratified the Convention, the next step required to give survivors internationally agreed rights. In contrast, 21 of our European neighbours, including Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands, have now done so.

It is worth considering the benefits the Istanbul Convention will bring to adult survivors of child sexual abuse, rape and all forms of sexual violence. First and foremost, it is the first legally binding Europe-wide agreement on sexual and other violence and it recognises that violence against women and girls is a human rights violation and a cause and a consequence of inequality between women and men.  

The Istanbul Convention requires parties (national governments) to meet minimum standards and take a comprehensive approach to protection, prevention, prosecution and elimination of sexual and other violence against women and girls. Critically, this includes properly resourced specialist support services: Official documents specify one Rape Crisis Centre per 200,000 women[5]  meaning that the UK is falling short of this kind of specialist service by approximately 100 centres. The Convention would also mean that gaps in data collection must be filled – astonishingly, the Government admits that it does not know the scale of sexual harassment and violence in schools because it does not require schools to gather this information.[6] A more collaborative approach to working with experts such as Rape Crisis will be required also.

Furthermore, at a time when the UK is negotiating its departure from the EU, the Istanbul Convention requires coordination and cooperation around Europe. And this is no small matter; as the Solicitor General recently acknowledged in Parliament, there are often cross-border issues involved when a British national commits sexual offences abroad.[7] The Government says that primary legislation is needed to close a loophole which means that, currently, only sex offenders who assault children abroad can be prosecuted at home, adults assaulted by British citizens are not protected. We want Government to take whatever steps necessary as a matter of urgency to ratify the Convention and give survivors of sexual violence rights that have long been agreed and which survivors in other parts of Europe now enjoy. 

For more information about the campaign calling on the Government to ratify the Istanbul Convention, visit the ICChange website here.


[2] 75% of Rape Crisis Centres receive no funding from their local Clinical Commissioning Group

[3] The Council of Europe is the continent's leading human rights organisation. It includes 47 member states, 28 of which are members of the European Union


[5] The Explanatory Report to the Convention reiterates previous recommendations that there should be one Rape Crisis Centre for every 200,000 women


[7] See Sir Oliver Heald’s response to a Parliamentary Question on 1st November 2016