The Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO)’s first review of existing policy approaches and legislation on violence against women in Cyprus has revealed many areas in which redoubled action is needed to comply with the standards of the Istanbul Convention.
At the same time, it underlines positive legal and policy measures that have been taken by the Cypriot authorities following Cyprus’s ratification of the convention.
GREVIO is a human rights monitoring body tasked to monitor the implementation of the Istanbul Convention - the guidelines countries must follow to prevent domestic violence and abuse of women
GREVIO is an independent human rights monitoring body mandated to monitor the implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (the Istanbul Convention) by the parties to the convention.
This report is the fruit of the first evaluation procedure carried out in respect of Cyprus.
In its summary, the report provides an assessment of the measures of implementation taken by the Cypriot authorities with regard to all aspects of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. These include written reports (a state report submitted by the Cypriot authorities) as well as a five-day evaluation visit to Cyprus.
It notes numerous positive legal and policy measures that have been taken by the Cypriot authorities following Cyprus’s ratification of the convention, “which demonstrate firm resolve to prevent and combat domestic violence and violence against women and to ensure gender equality.”
These positive developments, it notes, include the passing of Law 115(1)/2021 on the Prevention and Combating of Violence against Women and Domestic Violence and Related matters, criminalising different forms of violence against women, the adoption of amendments to the definition of rape with a view to aligning it more closely to the convention, as well as the entry into force of the 2021 Law to Provide for the Protection from Harassment and Stalking and the 2020 Law on Combating Sexism and Sexist Behaviour.
Despite the above, GREVIO has observed in this report a number of issues where improvement is warranted in order to reach higher levels of compliance with the requirements of the Istanbul Convention.
In the area of protection, the report points to the absence of a rape crisis or sexual violence referral centre capable of providing holistic and comprehensive support to victims of sexual violence/rape.
It equally notes that currently forensic evidence can be lifted from the victim if she has reported the violence to the police, a requirement which is not in line with the convention.
Moreover structural shortcomings have been identified stemming from the co-existence of the 2000 Violence in the Family Law and the Law 115 on the Prevention and Combating of Violence against Women and Domestic Violence and Related matters, leading to overlapping and contradicting provisions on certain matters.
The report also highlights how, despite the inclusion in two successive national action plans on gender equality of the objective to create a centralised database on all forms of violence against women, no progress has been made thus far.
According to the report, the data that are currently being collected are, in fact, scarce, disjointed and incapable of providing an overall picture on the incidence of domestic violence and other forms of violence against women, the support and protection provided to victims and, more generally, the response of the relevant institutions.
In particular, the insufficient collection of statistical data on the number of reports received by the police, the investigations opened, indictments made, and final convictions handed down by courts, for any form of violence against women, renders an assessment of attrition rates and the identification of gaps in the criminal justice response to violence against women extremely difficult.
Notwithstanding the steps taken to train law enforcement officers on violence against women, the report underscores that prejudices and patriarchal attitudes still seem to be rampant and have led to failure to record incidents of violence against women and inaction of the police, which, in turn have led to significant underreporting by victims due to lack of trust.
The report equally highlights how law enforcement authorities, under prosecutor’s guidance, over-rely on the victim’s statement, failing to collect additional evidence, which in turn, have led to a low number of cases proceeding successfully along the criminal justice chain.
Moreover, the report expresses serious concern about the lack of mandatory initial and in-service training of prosecutors and judges, noting that some have been reported to display sexist and misogynist attitudes towards women victims of domestic violence and sexual violence/rape and generally have an insufficient understanding of the paradigmatic shift in proving rape since the relevant law has been amended.
The report also identifies significant shortcomings both in the law and in the practice of family courts when deciding on custody and visitation rights after domestic violence. Under the relevant laws, no explicit reference is made to domestic violence or other forms of violence against women as a legal criterion to be taken into account when deciding on custody and visitation.
Moreover, family courts appear to interpret the best interest of the child as maintaining contact with both parents in all cases, even where the child has witnessed violence. In the report, concern is equally expressed about the increase in use by courts of the concept of so called “parental alienation syndrome” in cases of domestic violence, a concept which is recognised not to exist, and the difficulties experienced in ensuring the safety of the victim and/or the child during visitation with abusive fathers in cases of domestic violence.
Recognising the difficulties faced by Cyprus due to the unprecedented influx of migrants and asylum seekers, the report identifies significant challenges in ensuring an asylum determination procedure that is gender sensitive.
GREVIO also highlights the “accrued risk” of migrant and asylum-seeking women victims of sexual violence and rape, referring to civil society reports on landlords exploiting the precarious situation of asylum-seeking women and their desperate need for lodgings. Moreover, asylum-seeking, and migrant women face difficulties to report gender-based violence and obtain support.
Insufficient measures have been taken in the Pournara reception centre to separate single women and unaccompanied girls from men, resulting in numerous reports of sexual violence in this reception facility, it is noted.
Among the recommendations suggested, GREVIO urges the Cypriot authorities to set up rape crisis or sexual violence referral centres and provide medical and forensic examinations, trauma support and psychological counselling for victims.
It calls for amending the Law on Parents and Children Relations and issue guidelines for practitioners to explicitly provide and ensure that in the determination of custody and visitation rights of children, incidents of violence covered by the Istanbul Convention are taken into account and, in addition, to ensure that in the exercise of any visitation or custody rights, the rights and safety of the victim and her children are safeguarded.
Furthermore, it calls for putting into place a clear legal framework governing restraining orders in cases of domestic violence, avoiding any overlaps between applicable provisions, while ensuring that restraining orders are available to victims for immediate protection, without high evidentiary requirements or other burdens placed on the victim.
It also urges the government to ensure that emergency barring orders in cases of domestic violence can be issued quickly, in situations of immediate danger without lengthy proceedings and with specified and stringent time limits for their request and approval.
It calls for legislative or other measures to qualify with more precision the concept of consent in the context of the rape and sexual violence offences criminalised by the Criminal Code, clarifying that it should be given voluntarily as the result of the person’s free will, assessed in the context of the surrounding circumstances.
The GREVIO report requests newly established specialist investigative units on domestic violence with the training, guidance and the expertise to handle other cases of violence against women, beyond domestic violence, such as stalking, digital forms of violence against women, sexual harassment, female genital mutilation, forced marriage and rape.
It also calls for ensuring that standard operating procedures are developed to identify and protect asylum-seeking women and girl victims of gender-based violence and ensure that they are screened for such vulnerabilities upon arrival (or swiftly after), ensuring prompt transfer to reception facilities or private accommodation and access to support services and counselling.