Violence against women and domestic violence in the Netherlands: GREVIO calls for a stronger gender perspective

Tuesday 28 January 2020

The Council of Europe Expert Group on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO) published its first baseline evaluation report on the Netherlands.

Louise Hooper and Maria Moodie of Garden Court were part of the GREVIO delegation responsible for evaluating the Netherlands' implementation and compliance with the Istanbul Convention, also known as the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

Louise was working as a member of the Secretariat of the monitoring mechanism of the Istanbul Convention between January 2019-May 2019 and Maria joined the delegation as an international expert.

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In the report, GREVIO emphasizes the long history in the country of addressing domestic violence and other forms of violence against women through policy and legislation, and with a strong focus on the gendered nature of domestic violence. Many promising initiatives have been launched to raise awareness of forms of violence as diverse as forced marriage, female genital mutilation, cyber violence, sexual harassment, including street harassment and sexual violence. There is a strong commitment to reach out to the younger generation in order to break social taboos and build healthy intimate relationships based on consent and the principle of equality between women and men. Important strides are thus being made to break with gender stereotypes in education but also in the labour market.

The report underlines that budget spending for services on domestic violence has increased significantly, and there is a clear desire to monitor, evaluate and re-assess existing policies and approaches. Research on violence against women is widely available and frequently commissioned by the authorities also for groups at risk of violence who may not be adequately covered by existing policies and practices, especially for women with disabilities, irregular migrant women and those with dependent residence status.

Moreover, the potential offered by the health sector to identify women and girls at risk of the different forms of violence is utilised in relation to domestic violence and female genital mutilation. Equally, its role in reducing generational transmission of trauma and violent behaviour is recognised and standard trauma screening among children witnessing or experiencing domestic violence and child abuse is being introduced.

More recently, however, the firm recognition of the power imbalance between women and men and its impact on women’s exposure has given way to a more gender-neutral approach. For instance, the newly used term of “violence in dependency (i.e. close) relationships”, which intends to capture the different manifestations of domestic violence which any one individual – irrespective of age, gender, relationship, sexual orientation or other – may experience in intimate or family relationships is an example. The National Action Plan entitled “Violence does not belong anywhere” (2018-2021) gives substance to this concept and lays out action to be taken by professionals in all sectors. Despite its many positive elements, such as its emphasis on the need for a multi-agency approach and the Istanbul Convention’s core principles of prevention, protection and prosecution, it sets out a view of domestic violence that is gender neutral with no recognition for women as a group at particular risk from gender-based harm.

The report explains that gender-neutral policies bear the risk of interventions by professionals that lack gender sensitivity, lead to gaps in protection and support and contribute to the re-victimisation of women. An example is the newly introduced one-stop municipality-based domestic violence support service (Safe Home): the centrepiece of the Dutch response to domestic violence as violence in dependency relations.

The report also welcomes the efforts made to ensure that the home is a safe place for all and the recognition of linkages and overlap between child sexual abuse, intimate partner violence and other forms of domestic violence, but calls for the introduction of a strong gender perspective in the provision of such a cluster of services. It is vital for women’s experiences as victims, the underlying power dynamics of domestic abuse and control, women’s dependency on the abuser and the implications for custody of children to be recognised.

While the Safe Home prevention-focused intervention aims to offer a holistic approach to domestic violence, it does not seek to clearly establish responsibility for abuse and control and masks male intimate partner violence against women as a problem among equals. This stands in the way of ensuring criminal accountability, which is one of the main aims of the Istanbul Convention.

There are no data available on violence against women and domestic violence offences disaggregated by gender, allowing no conclusions to be drawn on the number of complaints, what action was taken and whether prosecutions have been effective. Fast tracking exists for certain offences covered by the Istanbul Convention, and prosecution services are asked to determine within a few hours whether to charge and bring the defendant before the judge, offer an out-of-court settlement or impose a penalty order. Research, however, suggests that the actual outcome in most cases of intimate partner violence is a dismissal, and use of out-of-court settlements is high. This seems to be the result of attitudes espoused by prosecution services that alternatives to criminal proceedings can be more effective than traditional court hearings because victims often retract their statements and professionals are often better able to give a balanced view of the situation than victims. The report points out that this results in the decriminalisation of domestic violence and denies the victim a voice in the proceedings and the opportunity to claim their rights as victims.

This has a bearing on the situation of children who have witnessed or experienced domestic violence. While this is generally recognised as child abuse and should be taken into account in custody decisions, there are no guidelines on how to do so. Parental plans must be drawn up ahead of the divorce procedure in order to reach mutually acceptable decisions about the children, including where the relationship was marred by domestic violence. Family courts frequently take the view that the violence ends after separation and hence opt for joint custody. The report thus points to the need to take past behaviour into account and step up efforts to uphold the safety and well-being of children when determining custody and visitation rights.

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

  • Enhance the application of a gendered perspective in the implementation of the Istanbul Convention, including its provisions in relation to domestic violence;
  • ensure stable and sustainable funding levels on the basis of separate budget and funding lines;
  • introduce standardised data categories for mandatory use by law-enforcement agencies, the judiciary and all other relevant actors on the gender and age of the victim and perpetrator, their relationship, type of violence and the geographical location;
  • introduce systematic, mandatory and gender-specific initial and in-service training on all forms of violence against women and domestic violence for all relevant professionals and interpreters in the immigration service;
  • ensure the provision of specialist women’s support services with a gendered approach and expand the provision of shelters;
  • review the criminal offences of psychological violence, sexual violence, sexual harassment, forced marriage and female genital mutilation. 

The full report is available to read here.

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