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The coronavirus pandemic has triggered spikes in domestic violence around the world, including in Europe. Organizations serving victims of abuse have reported dramatic upticks in the number of calls, emails, and website visits. Faced with movement restrictions and social distancing measures, many people affected by domestic violence are trapped at home with their abusers, struggling to access needed support networks and services.

In this context, it is particularly alarming that several European states have recently taken steps to leave the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, known in short as the Istanbul Convention. The Istanbul Convention, which came into force in August 2014, requires state parties to introduce laws that criminalize psychological and physical violence against women, implement preventative measures (such as public education campaigns, trainings for relevant professionals, and treatment programs for offenders), and regularly monitor progress.

In May 2020, the Hungarian legislature refused to ratify the convention, which the Hungarian government had previously signed in 2014. Last month, a narrowly re-elected Polish government announced that it is also considering withdrawing from the treaty and would submit the convention to the country’s Constitutional Tribunal for review. In Turkey, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has similarly threatened to leave the convention, arguing that Turkey had been wrong to endorse it in the past.

The timing of these moves is not coincidental. As the coronavirus pandemic has spread, all three governments have sought to mobilize their supporters along established cultural fault lines, perhaps to divert attention from the broader socioeconomic crisis—and to take advantage of the fact that pandemic-related restrictions have made it more difficult for their opponents to push back.

Across all three countries, conservative ruling governments assert that they do not seek to erode protections against domestic violence: instead, they have attacked the convention for endangering traditional family structures and gender roles. The convention’s definition of the term “gender” as socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes has emerged as a particular flashpoint, with critics (falsely) arguing that this framing undermines biological distinctions between women and men.

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