Ukraine’s parliament on June 20 passed a bill ratifying the Istanbul Convention, a key human rights treaty on preventing and combatting violence against women.
The country came close to ratifying the Council of Europe convention in 2016 but failed after a majority in parliament voted against it.
After years of wait and repeated calls from activists to ratify the Istanbul Convention, Ukraine finally adopted the treaty amid its EU membership bid. Some EU members have said ratifying the convention is a precondition for approving Ukraine’s candidacy status.
The Istanbul Convention, formally known as the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, is the first instrument in Europe that legally binds standards to combat gender-based violence. Ratified in more than 30 countries, the treaty requires states to coordinate their response to abuses by protecting victims and persecuting offenders.
Despite being one of its authors and signing it in 2011, Ukraine's government remained stubbornly mute on the subject and deferred its ratification for years. Strong opposition from churches and conservative politicians over the use of the term “gender” in the text was among the main obstacles.
Until today, Ukraine was one of the 11 countries that had signed, but never ratified the Istanbul Convention, with other countries struggling with similar domestic clashes.
On June 18, President Volodymyr Zelensky submitted the bill to parliament to ratify the convention. Two days later, lawmakers voted 259-8 in favor of the bill.
Countries that have adopted the convention must criminalize major forms of violence against women, which include psychological abuse, stalking, physical and sexual abuse, forced marriage, forced abortion, and sterilization.
Human rights activists have long called for changes in the legislation to impose harsher punishments for offenders of gender-based violence.
For instance, domestic violence has been an administrative offense in Ukraine since 2003, punishable by a fine, community work of up to 60 hours, or by imprisonment of up to 15 days.
In 2019, “systematic” domestic violence was criminalized, which in practice means that criminal charges will only be brought if the abuser commits three offenses in a year. The punishments often fall short of what victims have anticipated, discouraging them and others to seek justice.
The convention’s ratification will expand the list of abuses punishable by law, but Ukraine will also need to change its legislation, such as defining liability for sexual harassment, Alyona Krivulyak, one of leaders of La Strada-Ukraine NGO hotline, told the Kyiv Independent.
Emphasizing that ratification is a big milestone for Ukraine, Kryvulyak is hopeful that it will decrease both the number of gender-based violence and domestic violence cases while also increasing resources of assistance available for victims.
The ratification of the convention by Ukraine is "an opportunity to finally recognize that women have the same rights and opportunities as men,” Oksana Pokalchuk, director of Amnesty International in Ukraine, told Suspilne.
Activists’ long-sought quest to ratify the Istanbul Convention comes amid a surge in reports of domestic and sexual violence as Russia wages its war, especially in Ukraine's eastern and southern regions.
The risk of women becoming victims of gender-based violence has increased over the course of Russia's eight-year war, but it's even harder to provide support now, according to Kateryna Khaneva, coordinator at Slavic Heart, a charitable foundation in eastern Ukraine that provides humanitarian aid and support for women facing gender-based violence.
Khaneva, who is usually based in Donetsk Oblast's Avdiivka but was displaced by Russia's war, said ratification is "a victory" for women's rights activists who have been calling for it for 11 years, but it's only the beginning.
Along with other NGOs, Khaneva and her team have filed numerous petitions calling for the adoption of the Istanbul Convention to Ukraine's presidential office, and years of their work finally paid off. She said that there was a lot of work put into the efforts as it also means doing everything to spread knowledge about the treaty to women across the country, as well as speaking with government officials.
Though Khaneva says the collective efforts of all activists across the country played a major role in the end result, she admitted that putting the treaty in place will be difficult.
Khaneva says she envisions Ukraine's gender-based violence prevention and response to meet international standards one day, but it will require a lot of time spent on legal work. There are also challenges of locating the financial resources to provide material support for victims, an ambitious goal for a country facing economic downfall due to Russia's war.
While acknowledging that tackling gender-based violence might not be the country's main priority right now amid the ongoing war, Khaneva said she is ready to continue working to go beyond the ratification.
"We will need to work a lot so that every woman, girl who suffered from (gender-based) violence can feel safe in our country," the activist told the Kyiv Independent.
Women have been “disproportionately affected” by Russia’s war as the situation exacerbates preexisting gender inequalities and discrimination, according to a collaborative report by U.N. Women and CARE International released in May.
The report also found that whether due to business closures or infrastructure being completely destroyed, women are struggling to find secure employment with many shifting their focus to unpaid work – both within and outside the home. With no guarantee of being able to support themselves and their children, women put in such situations are forced to depend on their counterparts.
The risk of gender-based violence is heightened in warzones, with more victims suffering more severe levels of abuse such as sexual violence and other forms of torture.
Kateryna Pavlichenko, deputy interior minister, reported that about 326,000 domestic violence cases were registered in Ukraine in 2021. Getting an accurate count of cases is difficult now since many victims don’t turn to the police or simply cannot do so due to active hostilities.