Croatian women activists urge prompt ratification of Istanbul Convention

Nov 25, 2013


Meeting in the Parliament on 25 November, Croatian activists for gender equality marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women by issuing an appeal for the immediate ratification of the Istanbul Convention. Croatia is one of the 32 signatories to the Convention, which was adopted by the Council of Europe in 2011 to combat rape and other violence against women, but the country has yet to ratify, citing the challenge of aligning national law with Convention requirements. Eight countries have so far ratified, most recently Serbia, and just two more are needed for it to enter into force.

Speakers at the event highlighted the unacceptable prevalence of violence against women, both in Croatia and worldwide. “Globally, every third woman experiences physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner, while more than 603 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not considered a crime. Rape and sexual assaults are used in violent conflicts as ‘tools of war,’” noted Vitalie Vremis, Deputy Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Croatia. “Every fifteen minutes a women is abused in Croatia,” said Nansi Tireli, president of the Parliamentary Committee for Gender Equality.

Activists agreed that Croatia had made progress in combating gender-based violence, but cited important gaps in both legislation and judicial practice. Changes in the Criminal Law at the beginning of 2013 that eliminated domestic violence as a specific felony offense had resulted in most cases being tried as misdemeanors, so perpetrators were receiving only short sentences. This outcome sends a message that violence against women is not a serious crime, participants observed. “Vivid examples have been presented today of laws and procedures that do not respond to the needs of victims, as well as actions that we need to take jointly to patch holes through which perpetrators escape justice, and women suffer,” Tireli concluded. “Let us take action!”

Adoption of the Istanbul Convention was seen as one remedy for these shortcomings, since it is viewed by activists as setting the world’s highest standards in the fight against gender-based violence. The document recognizes that violence against women is a crucial social mechanism by which women are forced into subordinate positions compared to men. Drawing on the framework and case law developed by the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), but the Convention complements CEDAW’s instruments by establishing a more detailed catalogue of legally binding obligations.

The gathering also discussed progress in addressing the legacy of rape and other sexual violence from the 1991-95 war. Mobilized by women’s activists and UNDP, the Ministry of Veterans Affairs has taken the lead in drafting a new law that would confer status and provide compensation and appropriate healthcare to survivors of wartime sexual violence. One challenge that experts have faced in preparing the law is the misconception that only victims whose cases have resulted in a court verdict should be eligible for benefits. The record of convictions for cases of wartime sexual violence is meager; only a few cases have even been brought to trial.

“Reparations have to be separated from criminal proceedings,” argued Jasmina Papa, UNDP´s Social Inclusion Programme Officer. In line with European Union guidance on victims’ rights, “the status of a survivor should not depend on the prosecution of the perpetrator. The main goal is to take care of survivors’ needs, not just through financial compensation but also through symbolic measures that acknowledge their suffering,” said Papa. “Symbolic measures are crucial not only for the recovery of survivors, but also for the whole community.” In granting status, she added, we have to act in good faith and assume the truthfulness of those who come forward, rather than subject survivors to secondary victimisation by questioning their accounts.

The Croatian roundtable was just one of a European-wide series of coordinated events organized at the initiative of the European Women’s Lobby in 33 countries to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence and advocate for the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. The co-organizers in Croatia included the Parliament’s Committee for Gender Equality and the Women’s Network Croatia.