A stand against gender-based violence: Latvia and the Istanbul Convention7 min read

 In Analysis, Baltics, Civil Society

Deemed to be “a significant victory for women’s human rights in Latvia,” Latvia’s parliament, the Saeima, voted to ratify the Istanbul Convention eight years after its initial commitment. The terms of the Convention will enter into force in the country on 1 May this year, making Latvia the 39th state party to the convention. With violence against women still a considerable problem in Latvian society, the ratification stands at the end of a successful campaign by NGOs and political actors alike and is a welcomed addition to civil society initiatives and existing legal frameworks.

All but five EU Member States have now ratified the document – Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, and Slovakia have each signed the convention but have not proceeded to ratification largely due to an alleged incompatibility with their constitutional definitions of ‘gender.’ In 2020, the Polish Government also expressed the intention to withdraw from the convention on similar grounds, although the motion to do so was rescinded in January 2024. 

The ratification of the convention means that preventing and combating gender-based violence no longer relies on the will of individual politicians, but is now a legal obligation under international law. It also signals “to society and internationally that violence cannot be tolerated” in Latvia, according to Agnese Krasta, member of the Unity party and deputy leader of New Unity, a pro-European, centre-right faction of the Saeima. 

However, this view was not shared by everyone, and on the day of the vote more than 100 people protested outside the Saeima. Much like in other countries,  opponents of the ratification in Latvia have largely argued that the concept of gender in the convention could be treated as a recognition of same-sex marriage. Others have argued that there was no need for such a document since there was enough work being done under Latvia’s existing legislation. 

Yet, there has been little actual progress made toward reducing gender-based violence in Latvia over the last two decades and, in the months leading up to the vote, NGOs took significant steps to dispel myths about the Convention and emphasise the need for a specific document in addition to current legislation. 

A pervasive problem   

It is estimated that 1 in 3 (or 61 million) women in the EU have experienced physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15. In all three Baltic countries, the most common forms of gender-based violence are physical or sexual violence and sexual harassment. A third of all women in Estonia have experienced physical or sexual violence; in Lithuania, this figure is slightly lower at 31%; and in Latvia, it is slightly higher at 39%. Just over 1 in 3 women in both Latvia and Lithuania have experienced sexual harassment, while in Estonia, this figure is as high as 44%. In the last decade, these figures have barely changed, which brings into question the effectiveness of both previous and current measures introduced to tackle gender-based violence in the country.

Gender-based violence remains underreported, and thus the above figures are likely to be much higher in reality. It is estimated that only 22% of women in the EU report such violence. In the Baltic countries, factors contributing to underreporting of gender-based violence include a fear of not being believed by authorities, a lack of awareness and understanding, and a general societal stigma.

Common myths and assumptions about gender-based violence, such as placing the responsibility on the woman rather than the perpetrator, become a particular issue when support agencies base their approach on this perspective. This in turn can lead many women to believe that reporting violence will actually put them at greater risk of harm.

Reports have indeed shown there to be large elements of victim-blaming across the Baltic region. In 2016, a report by the European Commission found that, within the EU, people in Cyprus, Malta, and the Baltic states would be the most likely to believe that women exaggerate claims of rape and provoke such violence.

A track-record of tackling violence in Latvia? 

The bulk of work by Latvia’s government to tackle gender-based violence has occurred during the last 20 years and has centred on human trafficking and domestic violence. Many forms of violence against women are covered by general provisions of the criminal code in Latvia, while any kind of violence against a partner or relative is considered an aggravating circumstance – meaning it can impact the sentence length for the offender. 

Between 2008 and 2015, the Latvian state introduced a number of policies and provisions to support women experiencing gender-based violence. This included the Prevention of Domestic Violence programme and the National Strategy of the Prevention of Trafficking in Human Beings, as well as state funded social rehabilitation services for adult victims of domestic violence, as well as perpetrators.

In 2015, there were 23 family crisis centres and women’s shelters with a total of 1084 beds for women and children to take refuge from abuse. These shelters exist in most regions of the country and are not run by women’s organisations, but by the relevant municipalities. 

Additionally, there are 20 women’s centres in Latvia run by NGOs and municipalities each of which are based in Latvia’s major cities and provide non-residential specialist support to women. Meanwhile, additional sources of non-governmental aid include the national crisis helpline Krīzes tālrunis, which is run by the organisation Skalbes, and the national helpline for victims of trafficking, Uzticības tālrunis cilvēku tirdzniecības mazināšanai, run by the NGO Patvērums Drošā māja (Shelter Safe Home). Both operate 24/7 and free of charge. 

Therefore, while the Latvian government may have a record of introducing measures to combat gender-based violence and to protect victims, it is questionable whether these efforts have been implemented well enough given little change to the number of reported incidents of gender-based violence. 

A number of factors may have led to this rise including a potential increase in reporting as a result of awareness raising initiatives for example. Even if this has been the case, however, a legally binding document like the Istanbul Convention would both oblige and aid government Ministers to introduce measures which can create real change for women in the event of increased reporting.

Campaign success 

The Istanbul Convention was established by the Council of Europe in August 2014. It establishes legal standards for member states, such as Latvia, to uphold the right of women to be free from violence. In driving the final ratification of the convention, NGOs in Latvia played a crucial role, in line with their long-standing role in supporting victims of gender-based violence. 

During the weeks leading up to the vote in parliament, NGOs reported a concerted misinformation campaign against the ratification. Opponents of the convention spread false narratives regarding the impact of the convention on a variety of topics including the impact it would have on education and LGBTQ+ rights.  

To counter these efforts, the MARTA Centre, Sievieti paveicas, and Skalbes, released their own campaign seeking to mobilise public support, educate the public against disinformation, and lobby parliamentarians. The MARTA Centre specifically produced an influential report titled “Myths and Facts about the Istanbul Convention” which addresses prominent myths about the convention one by one. 

The convention’s impact

Following ratification in other Council of Europe member states, many local, regional, and national governments have expanded the range of support services available to women victims of gender-based violence. Some examples include national telephone helplines, increasing the number of shelters, or introducing specialised services for victims of sexual violence. These improvements are often a direct result of recommendations in the Istanbul Convention or recommendations made by the Group of Experts on Action against Violence Against Women and Domestic Abuse in regular monitoring reports. 

For Latvia, there is hope from NGOs that similar changes will follow Latvia’s ratification of the convention. Iluta Lace, Head of the MARTA Centre, told Lossi 36 that ratification is “a clear sign that [the government] sees violence against women as a serious crime and that it will take action against [it].” She said that the effects have already been seen in the country, including The Action Plan against Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence which the Ministry of Welfare has started to develop for the first time. For MARTA especially, the organisation is in contact with the court administration to develop a training programme for judges. 

According to representatives from Skalbes, ratification of the Istanbul Convention would provide certainty to laws as well as financial support for activities aimed at assisting rehabilitating victims of domestic violence.  

Ultimately, there is a sense of hope and accomplishment from NGOs in Latvia. Ratification has signalled a strict international and legal commitment to tackling gender-based violence from the national  government, and the expectation from NGOs is that direct action and real change will now start to occur. Lace: “This is an open window of opportunity to practically improve women’s situation!”

Feature Image: Council of Europe / Canva
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