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GREVIO publishes evaluation report on Belgium implementation of Istanbul Convention

Monday 12 October 2020

Maria Moodie of Garden Court Chambers advised upon and drafted Chapter VII of the Belgium report in relation to protections available for migrant women and asylum seekers who have experienced or are at risk of gender based violence.

She has previously acted as International Expert to the GREVIO delegations responsible for evaluating the implementation and compliance with the Istanbul Convention by France and the Netherlands.

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Following its five-day evaluation visit to Belgium in October 2019, GREVIO (Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence) prepared its first (baseline) evaluation report of Belgium’s compliance with the Istanbul Convention. It made the following key observations and findings;

GREVIO acknowledged that the public authorities at both federal and federated entity level in Belgium have demonstrated a commitment to securing equality between women and men and to ensuring women's safety by combating violence against the physical, sexual and psychological integrity of individuals. Since the adoption of the first national action plan in 2001, GREVIO found significant progress has been made by uniting the regional, Community and federal authorities around such a plan in 2006 and by extending the scope of the plan beyond intimate partner violence in 2008 to include other forms of violence committed against girls and women such as sexual violence, forced marriages, so-called honour crimes and female sexual mutilation.

However, despite the existence of common definitions based on recognition of the gendered nature of violence against women, GREVIO noted that gender-based violence against women is relatively invisible within Belgian policies. GREVIO found that the gender neutral approach adopted in both legislation and policy revealed a tendency to put women and men on an equal, symmetrical footing among the victims and perpetrators of the types of violence covered by the convention. GREVIO expressed concern that gender-neutral policies carry the risk that interventions by professionals may not be gender-sensitive, which can lead to gaps in protection and support for women and contribute to them suffering secondary victimisation. In addition, GREVIO noted that policies to combat violence against women have been slow to mainstream the issue of multiple discrimination and to address the full range of groups affected by violence, even though measures exist to help specific target groups such as people with disabilities.

GREVIO noted the efforts taken to ensure coordination of policies however the choice to separate administrative (within the Interdepartmental Co-ordination Group), political (through an interministerial steering committee) and civil society (within a group of experts) co-ordination leads to fragmentation in this area and is detrimental to consistency in terms of policies and approaches. Disparities were also noted in policy co-ordination between the governments of the federated entities. The report therefore underlines the need to establish a central and transversal space for co-ordination and dialogue that is sustainable and common to all stakeholders, as well as the need to improve co-ordination at all levels of government. With regard to the national co-ordinating body (the Institute for Equality between Women and Men, IEFH), the report notes that there is a need to increase the authority and resources which the IEFH requires to carry out its tasks and support a transversal approach at all levels of government, while at the same time providing effective monitoring and evaluation of policies through an independent multidisciplinary body. Despite the progress observed in the collection of administrative data disaggregated by sex, GREVIO found that available data about violence is unsatisfactory in terms of both quality and quantity, is not harmonised across the various bodies that produce them (particularly law enforcement agencies and the judiciary), and is not disseminated regularly and accessibly at federal level.

Concerns are also expressed in the report about the fact that funding for policies to combat violence against women is difficult to decipher, and about the downward trend and/or inadequacy of the resources allocated, including where co-ordination mechanisms are concerned. While the report welcomes the willingness of the public authorities to support and work in synergy with associations specialising in the prevention of violence against women, it notes disparities in the support given to such associations across the country, with a tendency for the authorities in Flanders to rely on a voluntary sector which is more generalist, and structured around the sphere of well-being, public health and family. Lastly, the report draws the attention of the authorities to the financial insecurity faced by these associations, for want of sufficiently developed structural funding, geared to their needs.

In the area of specialist victim support services, GREVIO noted substantial efforts have been made in Belgium to promote the specialisation of structures able to receive and house women victims of gender-based violence. GREVIO found that shelters in Wallonia are too few in number and do not cover the whole territory, especially in rural areas. In Flanders, GREVIO found there has been no reported expansion in the capacity of shelters in recent years, not least because priority is given to the non-residential approach over specialised care in a shelter. GREVIO found accessibility is a problem for certain groups of women, such as mothers with boys over 12 years of age and older women, as well as for particularly vulnerable women, such as women seeking to exit prostitution or women with disabilities. GREVIO found a particularly problematic aspect of access to accommodation in shelters is the fact that those wishing to stay there must pay a fee, contrary to the requirement that such accommodation should be free of charge.

With regard to the issue of children who are victims of violence and exposed to violence, GREVIO found that insufficient attention is paid to violence against women, both in terms of the courts called upon to rule on the exercise of the custody and visitation rights of perpetrators, and in terms of generalist and/or specialist services, which can introduce measures affecting the exercise of parental authority irrespective of the courts. The report finds that this is the result of practices which erroneously assume that children are no longer in danger once their parents have separated, and a tendency to equate acts of violence with disputes, and to employ mediation without taking the appropriate precautions. To remedy these shortcomings, the report advocates the urgent adoption of a number of measures, including drawing up guidelines and/or reviewing existing practices and benchmarks for agencies involved in helping children, so that any action they take is based on a recognition of the risks and harmful consequences to which child witnesses are exposed, and ensuring appropriate use of the legal provisions which allow - including as a matter of urgency and on a temporary basis - the perpetrator’s custody and visitation rights to be curtailed, removed and/or subjected to safeguards whenever a situation of violence is ascertained.

Resulting from the above, GREVIO calls on Belgium to take the following measures as a priority:

  • strengthen risk assessment and risk management procedures, including by integrating a gender perspective;
  • develop a clear and shared strategy to create appropriate conditions for the provision of compulsory initial and in-service training incorporating a gender approach, for the relevant professionals who deal with victims and/or perpetrators of all forms of violence covered by the convention;
  • ensure that the programmes for the care and social and judicial follow-up of perpetrators of domestic violence and sexual violence incorporate a uniform gendered approach and deconstruction of sexist stereotypes, and determine more precisely under what circumstances it is appropriate to encourage recourse to alternative measures/penalties for perpetrators of domestic violence;
  • take appropriate steps to encourage further multi-agency co-operation and to ensure that the different forms of co-operation are firmly based on a gendered understanding of violence against women and domestic violence and focus on the human rights, safety and respect for the wishes of victims;
  • provide, in co-operation with women’s rights NGOs, advice, information and guidance services specifically targeting violence against women which meet the requirements of Article 24 of the Istanbul Convention;
  • provide law enforcement agencies and the judiciary with the necessary resources, knowledge and means to respond promptly and adequately to all the forms of violence covered by the Istanbul Convention, with a view to revealing the extent of unreported acts of violence and ensure that criminal investigations and proceedings can be conducted effectively, while at the same time taking care to preserve the dissuasive function of penalties;
  • take all necessary measures to ensure that the use of criminal mediation in cases of violence against women is based on full respect for the rights, needs and safety of victims;
  • undertake an in-depth review of immigration laws and policies in order to bring them into line with the obligations under Article 59 of the Istanbul Convention;
  • take measures to tackle the shortage of places in reception centres in order to give full effect to the laws aimed at identifying and supporting women asylum seekers in situations of vulnerability because of violence and to produce and implement centralised gender-sensitive guidelines, protocols and training courses for all reception centres.

Furthermore, GREVIO has identified a number of additional areas in which improvements are required in order to comply fully with the obligations of the convention. These include giving victims greater access to adequate information on available support services and legal measures; improving general victim support services, in particular as regards financial assistance, health care and social housing; increasing the use of emergency barring and protection orders and setting up centres to provide emergency assistance to victims of sexual violence across the country.

Specifically, in the area of migration and asylum in which Maria Moodie was responsible for undertaking a detailed analysis of domestic legislation and policy and its compliance with the requirements of Chapter VII of the Istanbul Convention, the following recommendations were made to Belgium:

  • GREVIO strongly encourages the Belgian authorities to undertake an in-depth review of their immigration laws and policies in order to bring them into line with their obligations under Article 59 of the Istanbul Convention (Belgium is currently failing to comply with several requirements relating to the protection of migrant women);
  • GREVIO strongly encourages the Belgian authorities to take measures to tackle the shortage of places in reception centres in order to give full effect to the laws aimed at identifying and supporting women asylum seekers in situations of vulnerability because of violence, and to produce and implement centralised gender-sensitive guidelines, protocols and training courses for all reception centres;
  • GREVIO encourages the Belgian authorities to ensure that a gender-sensitive approach is applied consistently to all grounds for persecution and that women receive optimal support for disclosing the grounds on which they are applying for international protection;
  • GREVIO encourages the Belgian authorities to draw up and publish gender guidelines offering better guarantees that violence will be taken into account in the case of vulnerable women to whom the “border placement” and “accelerated” procedures apply.

Read the full report here. 

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