As the government plans to only partially ratify the Istanbul Convention, Maariyah Rashid assesses the importance of full ratification to protect women and girls against violence.
The Government has announced its intention to ratify the Istanbul convention, 10 years after signing the agreement. This comes after persistent calls from activists in the womens’ sector, and from successive opposition governments, for ratification. However, as always, the Government over promises but under delivers.
The Istanbul Convention is vital legislation which recognises violence against women and girls as a violation of human rights, and crucially, puts forward a comprehensive framework to tackle it, requiring the Government to commit to a baseline standard to protect women and girls. Its 4 pillars of prosecute, protect, prevent, and monitor, not only cover a wide array of abuses faced by women but, set out a plethora of powers linked to prosecuting perpetrators. The convention truly offers a complete framework for states to adopt.
As such, the Government intends to ratify, but will apply reservations. The Home Secretary statement reads, “we will also be applying a reservation on article 59, which related to migrant victims, to enable us to ratify the convention before the evaluation of the Support for Migrant Victims scheme concludes, at which point we will consider the policy issues involved substantively, and whether that reservation should continue.”
To put it simply, they will ratify the convention but drawing a line through the all-important provision of providing support for migrant women. Article 59 would require the UK to make sure that victims of violence are given support and protection regardless of their immigration status.
Currently, women and girls who are arriving in the UK on dependent visa such as spouse visa, work visa or visit visas, are tied to their husband’s status. Therefore, if abuse occurs in these relationships, women then become tied to their abusers, if they want to continue to live in the UK.
During the pandemic, we saw a 65% increase in calls and contacts logged by the National Domestic Abuse Helpline between April and June 2020. As more of us spent time indoors, the severity of abuse faced by women increased. I vividly remember taking a call from a migrant woman during the height of the pandemic, she had managed to escape and gain respite from her abusive husband relying on the goodwill of a friend for a few days. I had to tell her there was no route for her to leave her abusive relationship and maintain a legal immigration status. She begged me to not send her back to her abusive husband. The state had become the perpetrator of her abuse.
Migrant women face unique and interrelating barriers to accessing support upon leaving their abusive relationships due to their insecure immigration status. EVAW found, in England 2019/20, almost 4 out 5 migrant women were turned away from refugees due to the No Recourse to Public Funds condition. Research from LAWRS found more than half of the women they surveyed feared they would not be believed by the police because of their immigration status. An insecure immigration status makes migrant women more vulnerable to abuse but less likely to receive protection.
In the Home Office's published VAWG strategy, The Home Secretary writes – “the safety of everyone in our country, wherever they are, is my priority”. Yet, for migrant women the need for the state to operate as immigration enforcement supersedes the duty to protect victims of violence.
This reality we face is; migrant women are either forced to stay in their violent relationships or leave and experience destitution and irregular immigration status. We cannot be a society that deliberately chooses to leave those who are the most vulnerable to fend for themselves.
Every single person who is committed to fighting violence against women and girls, should be listening and more importantly, using their voice to ask the Government not to leave migrant women behind. Migrant women do not have the luxury of waiting for an evaluation of data, that will ultimately prove their plight. We must act now.
The Government must ratify the Istanbul Convention without applying reservations, and meet their commitment of ending violence against women and girls - regardless of their immigration status.
Maariyah Rashid is a parliamentary assistant for a Labour MP, and also works with Muslim Women Connect to manage their successful flagship mentoring programme. She is passionate about building safe spaces for marginalised women to thrive in.