The Istanbul Convention, the Rome Conference, violence against women and the case of Diana Kader

Rome speech on the Istanbul Convention and Diana Kader’s case, and others

Speech delivered at Rome, at the Council of Europe conference on the Istanbul Convention, at the Italian Chamber of Deputies, on 19 September, 2014

The Istanbul Convention is a huge achievement. I wanted to use my experience as a social affairs journalist to explain the difference the Convention could make to the survivors of long-term and acute violence.

I have spent the last two years working with a courageous young woman, Diana Kader, who is of British Yemeni origin, on a book about her story, which will be published in the next few months, first by Hachette Poland [in 2015]. It is called Hear My Cry. I wanted to share some of her story with you today.

In the summer of 2006 Diana Kader graduated from university in Manchester, in the north of England, with a degree in Human Sciences. She was the first in her family to gain a degree and her proud parents, neither of whom can read or write but who desperately wanted their five daughters and one son to have the education they never had in rural Yemen, decided to take them back to their country of origin, on a family holiday.

For Diana and her siblings Yemen was the homeland they had never known. They were Manchester kids – but also devout Muslims, proud of their roots.
They were captivated by their homeland, and delighted to meet their extended family. But soon Diana and her sisters were being wooed. A young man from a wealthy family in central Yemen asked for Diana’s hand in marriage. Diana didn’t know him, and turned him down, with the full support of her parents.

The suitor was persistent, and eventually Diana’s father had to be very forthright to ask him to desist. But it didn’t end there.

One day, when Diana was driving alone, along a desert highway, her spurned suitor ran her off the road in a petrol tanker and tried to murder her, in a botched ‘honour’ killing.

In the ‘accident’ her pelvis was shattered, her arm and leg broken and she sustained severe internal injuries. Then he phoned her father and threatened to leave her to die by the side of the road ‘like a dog’.

Diana’s father is a hero. He pleaded with this criminal to get Diana to hospital – and to this day it is not clear why the man agreed. Whilst she was in hospital further threats were made against her. Diana then spent three months in intensive care and nearly three years in rehab. She was told she would never walk again. It is a testament to her strength, and that of her devoted family, particularly her amazing mother and siblings, that she is now back at work, and walks – but has permanent disabilities and lives in constant pain.

But how did the UK support Diana, a clear victim of ‘honour’ based violence? For the campaign against her did not end in Yemen. She and her family – amongst them young children – have faced hostility, harassment, violence and intimidation from some in her own community for standing up to so-called ‘honour’ crime.
Britain, certainly, was not to blame for the fact that the Yemeni authorities did not put her suitor on trial – although he was arrested and had admitted running her over. Diana even returned in 2010 to Yemen to seek justice. But, yet again, it was denied to her.

But it was at this point that many British institutions failed Diana. Firstly, the Foreign Office failed her because it did not link her with its own unit, the Forced Marriage Unit, which supports victims such as her, even when no legal outcome can be achieved. And she was failed, in some respects, by other institutions too – particularly the local police force, as well as local and national political figures.

Every time that Diana and her family were subject to on-street harassment or an attack on their home in revenge for what happened in Yemen, it was dealt with by a different police officer in Manchester – until last year, when I raised this matter with them, and stressed that I thought she was in danger, and that a more co-ordinated approach was desperately needed.

The Convention creates a blueprint for a co-ordinated, victim centred approach for combating all forms of violence against women. One can but hope that such an approach will filter down to the police force level in individual countries and change attitudes towards survivors such as Diana, who are in such great danger from the communities in which they live. It is wonderful that the Council of Europe is leading international efforts to protect women’s human rights but we need individual police officers, MP’s and others in positions of authority to take that on board and implement it too.

I also think there needs to be a greater understanding of the wider community basis of so-called ‘honour’ based violence. I commend the drafters of the Convention for their care in wording that means that no-one can invoke an ‘honour’ defence for any kind of violence. But there does remain a focus on family members and their part in so called honour killing. Diana’s case, and others, according to the wonderful charity IKWRO, which supports women of Middle Eastern and Afghani origin at risk of violence and which is now supporting Diana, also demonstrate how a whole community can bring an almost unbearable pressure to bear on a family to enforce the ‘honour’ code. In Diana’s case her family – almost all of them – stood by her, to their immense credit. But so many families do not. How do we bring that brilliant focus of prevention in the Convention to bear in so-called ‘honour’ crimes and ease that community pressure on families who are seeking to modernize and live between two worlds?

Another invisible world – that of women experiencing domestic violence – is one explored by the Convention – to the immense credit of those working on it. As the Convention’s explanatory notes make clear, no statute can ever prevent violence occurring in the first place. But the Convention can encourage countries that ratify it to provide victims and witnesses with advice and support. For survivors of domestic violence, for example, one essential component of that is the refuge, where women can go with their children. I cannot stress how important refuges are. They save lives. According to the British charity, Women’s Aid, one in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. But consider this fact: that statistic doubles for disabled women. Almost one in two disabled women will experience domestic violence at the hand of a partner, carer or family during their lifetime. Some of the violence will be what most of us recognize as domestic violence. But some will have an extra edge of cruelty – it will be adapted to the impairment of the woman. So, for instance, I have heard disabled women tell me of having their medication withheld, or, if they are wheelchair users, having the battery taken out so they cannot move. I have spoken to women with learning difficulties who have been sexually abused and deliberately targeted because they would be seen as ‘unreliable witnesses’ by the police, meaning that the perpetrators would then be more likely to get away with their crimes. There is only one refuge in the UK for women with learning difficulties. Romani Gypsy and Traveller women also experience domestic violence and require specialist support in refuges, as do other women from minority ethnic communities. So I am angry that across the UK specialist domestic violence posts are being cut. 10 specialist services were lost in the first quarter of this financial year alone and 17% of refuges closed completely since 2010 – at a time when this Convention is coming into force and has stressed how important refuges are.

But I would like to end on an optimistic note – for there are many reasons to be cheerful. I applaud the Convention’s strong focus on prevention. This focus comes into its own when it comes to stalking in particular.

I believe that the Convention could save the lives of women (and men) who are being stalked, right now, in Europe. In particular I would point to the introduction of protection and restraining orders, thus restraining perpetrators from approaching their victims. The Convention asks countries to do all they can to enforce these across borders. The criminalisation of stalking in all countries that ratify the treaty will galvanise attitudes towards this horrific crime which, as British stalking survivor and campaigner, Alexis Bowater once told me, rightly, is ‘murder in slow motion’. The countries signing up will be on their mettle – they will be monitored on their progress. As a senior police officer dealing in hate crime once told me: “If something is measured, it gets done.” So things will change for the better in Europe and that may well improve things in other regions as well.

The Istanbul Convention requires action and implementation – change – from so many people: police officers, prosecutors, social workers, housing officers and politicians – and, yes, journalists too. But, at the heart of it is the sea change that so many campaigners have wanted, for so many years: it puts the survivor, the victim, at the heart of the process. When Diana lay on the desert road in Yemen, with her attacker smiling down at her, she decided she would live and tell her tale, for the sake of her family, for the sake of other women. Every time she has been attacked since then, in her community, spat at in the street, had her tyres slashed, called a whore and a slut for the crime of working, she has had to make that commitment once again: to live and tell her tale. The Convention honours women such as Diana – in the true sense of the word. It says, I hope, that we hear her cry. Let’s take up that challenge. Thank you.

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