Implementation of the Istanbul Convention in Finland: What is working well and what still needs to be fixed?

Finland signed the Istanbul Convention (IC) in 2011 and the ratification entered into force in 2015. The first country report to GREVIO was due in spring this year. Alongside Finland’s official report submitted by the state, 13 NGOs formed a coalition to produce a parallel report.(1) The report was coordinated by the two Finnish WAVE members: Federation of Mother and Child Homes and Shelters together with Women’s Line. In this article I will introduce some of the main points of the report, divided here into three core parts: structures for implementation, support measures and legislative problems.

Structures of implementation

NGOs demanded separate financial and human resources to be allocated to the implementation of the Istanbul Convention. Funding for research is also required to carry out regular monitoring and data collection. Many measures presented in the Action Plan for the Istanbul Convention are separate as actions and general in format, and they do not include any cost estimates or information regarding budgets. Most of the Convention’s provisions or their coordination have not been provided with separate financial and human resources; rather, the planned measures will get their funding from the budgets of the ministries in charge of each of these issues. NGOs pointed out that all provisions are necessary for securing the human rights of girls and women, and they should not have to compete for resources with other operations from administrative branches.

There is a major reform of governmental regional, health and social services underway in Finland. Combating domestic violence and violence against women must be taken into account when planning, implementing and allocating funding to this reform scheme. The regional coverage of preventive work and the services for victims and perpetrators must be secured in the reform. A main concern is that the reform of health and social services and the digitalisation of information services, among other things, may complicate access to services for particularly vulnerable groups of women, such as elderly, disabled or immigrant women.

Furthermore, the role of NGOs as cooperation partners must be strengthened at the national level. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health published the Action Plan for the implementation of the Istanbul Convention for 2018–2021 (hereinafter referred to as the Action Plan) in December 2017. It reveals one of the most central problems encountered throughout the implementation so far: the 4-year plan focuses on the development of state authorities and their work but fails to notice the significant role that NGOs play in combating domestic violence in Finland. In the introduction of the Action Plan, it is stated that “Finland has a strong tradition of cooperation between public authorities and NGOs, and the latter are also involved in the implementation of several Articles”. Nonetheless, NGOs remain absent later on when actual measures for implementing the Action Plan are listed.

Furthermore, the coordinating body consists solely of state authorities. The lack of NGO input in the Action Plan has received criticism, and consequently a division within the NGO representation has emerged inside the coordinating body. The goal of the new division is to outline and support NGOs’ operations aimed, among other things, towards implementing the Istanbul Convention. The NGO division of the Committee for Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence is a good starting point for increasing cooperation, even though it is unclear on what grounds the members and supplementary members were chosen, since they were already designated on the invitation. NGOs still question the decision to not let them be part of the actual coordinating body itself, but only of its preparatory division. NGOs emphasize that the new division needs to have direct contact with the coordinating body and the division must be able to influence the actions and decisions made by the coordinating body.

NGOs also point out that in addition to the coordinating body, a coordination centre for combating violence is required. The centre would monitor and evaluate the acts of preventing and addressing gender-based violence against women.

Measures of support

As part of the upcoming governmental region, health and social services reform, employers need to ensure having appropriate training to be able to detect the characteristics of gender-based violence, carry out risk assessment, recognise the influence of violence on individuals, children and relatives or friends, and be aware of the structures sustaining violence. Resources and systematic, long-term training, where the expertise of NGOs is acknowledged and utilised, are needed. Guaranteeing cooperation among the various old and new actors through appropriate training (Article 15 of the IC) is crucial for strengthening victims’ rights and ensuring access to services.

NGOs are pleased that the state has increased funding for victim shelter services. Two million Euros of additional funding have been allocated for strengthening the victim shelter network until 2019, and another 2 million Euros were allocated for the year 2018 alone. Nevertheless, service providers still carry the risk for encountering unexpected costs, and funding remains insufficient to cover the number of needed family places. According to the National Institute for Health and Welfare, many clients were referred to another shelter due to lack of space − a situation which was recorded 1,198 times in 2016 across Finland. The regional coverage of the shelter network has been improved, and the number of family places has grown from 123 to 185 in three years. That is still less than half of the recommended number of shelter spaces by the Istanbul Convention, according to which there should be 550 family places in victim shelters across Finland.

All coins have two sides. Out of the 27 shelters in Finland, 20 are run by NGOs. State funding and coordination cannot be allowed to build a gap between shelters, crisis work and daytime, long term services, since it would harm potential clients and their access resources. State funding can neither be allowed to limit the independence of NGOs providing shelter services.

In addition to shelters for victims of domestic violence, daytime services for victims of gender-based violence against women and domestic violence are mainly provided by NGOs. Funding for these services is currently project-based and allocated for a limited term. In December 2016, the state-wide round-the-clock Nollalinja helpline for was set up. The helpline is aimed at anyone who has experienced violence in a close relationship, and it represents a positive advancement. Nollalinja has successfully managed to reach out to Finnish citizens. It has not yet been able to reach out to immigrant women though.

The network of low-threshold support and services should be broadened to cover all forms of violence against women and girls, not only domestic or intimate partner violence. In May 2017, the Sexual Assault Support Centre was opened as part of the Women’s Hospital in Helsinki, which was another positive advancement. It is encouraging to know that there are going to be more such support centres established across Finland. However, it is currently mandatory for potential clients to have experienced sexual violence within 30 days of seeking help. This imposes certain barriers for persons who have experienced sexual violence, as it might take them months or even years to come forward and seek for help. The current limitation affects especially the most vulnerable groups, influencing the assistance they seek and receive. Victims of rape and other acts of sexual violence should be offered support far beyond the 30 -days threshold. There is currently a need for low-threshold support services also for non-acute forms of sexual violence.

NGOs want to point out that protection and support for child witnesses is not adequate as chances for getting specialised help are low and depending on where the child lives. Children as witnesses of violence should also be recognised in the service system as victims of violence. Violence is traumatising even when it is not physically targeted at the child. This aspect should be considered in the context of interventions and services, but also when reaching agreements about child custody and visiting rights. In addition, the child must also be heard when making such custody and visiting arrangements. Children must be systematically provided with support services of their own every time an authority finds out about violent situations in which a child was present.

Furthermore, collaboration between the police and perpetrators’ programmes must be enhanced. Work done with perpetrators should be equally accessible throughout the whole country, which would promote the ending of violence and the safety of victims.

Legislative problems

Throughout the implementation of the Convention, the need for national legislation to be adapted to its provisions must be considered. For example, this may require criminalizing forced marriages, reform the Trans Act, and include into legislation the lack of consent as one of the characteristics of a sexual crime. In Finland, only a small share of all rapes is reported, and only a small share of reported rapes are prosecuted. Moreover, rape sentences are considerably milder than for instance sentences given for financial crimes.

In the drafting of the legislative reform of the law on child custody, the requirement to take gender-based violence against women into account in the determination of custody rights has not been addressed. Violence is only mentioned in a part concerning the general purpose of custody, where it is said that the child must be protected from violence. Sections concerning determination of custody and visitation rights are mainly centred around the parents’ duty to cooperate. The proposed legislation is flawed and does not comply with the obligations from the Istanbul Convention.

Finnish legislation contains provisions on restraining orders, which can be applied by both victims and authorities. As victims of gender-based violence are often prevented or unwilling to make use of their right to claim restraining orders, these orders should be applied more routinely ex officio. Since the beginning of 2016, it costs 250 euros to apply for a restraining order. NGOs are concerned that the request for a fee may place an unjustified financial burden on the victim, which is against the standards from the Istanbul Convention. This payment makes it particularly difficult for the most vulnerable victims to access support.

Article 59 of the Convention requires that “victims whose residence status depends on that of the spouse or partner as recognised by internal law, in the event of the dissolution of the marriage or the relationship, are granted in the event of particularly difficult circumstances, upon application, an autonomous residence permit irrespective of the duration of the marriage or the relationship”. Even though Finland has made the necessary amendments to the Aliens Act, these requirements are not usually applied in practice when handling applications. MONIKA – Multicultural Women’s Association receives annually between 20 to 30 requests for help from women who have received negative residence permit decisions regardless of extreme violence in their marriages or intimate relationships. NGOs recommend including the implementation of Article 59 in the Action Plan for the Istanbul Convention, for example by providing adequate training to staff working in immigration offices.

By Sari Laaksonen, Development Director of the Federation of Mother and Child Homes and Shelters, board member of WAVE
Photo by European Commission