This post concentrates on Article 8 ECHR to argue that it can be viewed as sympathetic to feminist goals since, due to its particular ability to impose positive obligations on the state in relation to creating respect for private or family life, it can require the state to create curbs on the actions of non-state actors particularly adverse to women (eg. in relation to domestic violence: Hajduova v Slovakia) and ensure the efficacy of services that women in particular might need to access, such as to abortion (P&S v Poland). Women are, it is argued, more at risk than men from the actions of non-state actors within the private and family sphere (see intervention of Equal Rights Trust in Eremia and Others v Moldova on this point), so Article 8 has a particular pertinence for women, and unlike Article 14 (the guarantee of freedom from discrimination), which has not proved to have a strong impact as a means of advancing the interests of women due to its reliance on furthering formal equality (see eg Dembour Who Believes in Human Rights, Ch 7), Article 8 can address the substantive concerns of women, without the need for any reliance on a comparator.
Other ECHR Articles are also relevant. Article 3 would also support recognition of positive obligations, (see McGlynn, Clare (2009) ‘Rape, torture and the European convention on human rights’ ICLQ 58 (3)) including in the contexts considered below, although the harm threshold is obviously high. Article 8 currently may be the gateway to Article 14, the freedom from discrimination guarantee (bearing in mind that the UK has not ratified Protocol 12). In other words, if Article 8 is engaged but no violation is found, a violation of Article 14 might nevertheless be found of the two read together (Van Raalte v Netherlands).
Using Article 8 ECHR to advance women’s interests
Under one strand of feminist thinking, it might be argued that the ECHR in general has little to offer women (see, for discussion, Grabham and Hunter ‘Encountering Human Rights’). This is due to a judicial approach to it that values modes of thought that may marginalise women and which pays little attention to ideas about feminist legal method (see Samuels ‘Feminizing human rights adjudication’), combined with the difficulty of using specific cases to address complex social problems. But, as a number of writers have pointed out, especially recently (see Bauer, ‘Documenting women’s rights violations by non-state actors’), human rights principles can be used as a campaign tool in influencing and mobilising public and community opinion. The use of campaigning methods by feminist advocacy groups, as instanced in the recent successful campaign to remove gender-based hate speech from Facebook, does not preclude mobilising legal channels as a complementary means of disrupting existing social norms adverse to women via deployment of such principles, allowing gender-specific variants of rights’ violations to be recognised. At the same time, the difficulties facing women who seek to use the ECHR should not be under-stated, and Article 8’s protection for family life is gender neutral at face value, meaning that it can also be invoked in ways that could put women and girls at risk by discouraging state actions interfering with family life that are designed to protect vulnerable women (for example, claims by family members convicted of offences relating to domestic violence, including ‘honour’ murder, that post-sentence they should not be deprived of access to surviving family members in furtherance of their family life, as occurred, albeit unsuccessfully, in Ahmad v Brent).
So, in what ways does and could Art 8 especially benefit women and girls? This blog obviously cannot offer by any means an exhaustive list – each of these matters is complex and has already spawned quite an extensive literature in itself in relation to international human rights’ law – so they can only be touched on here.
Preventing deportation to face adverse treatment based on gender
EM (Lebanon) (FC) (Appellant) (FC) v SSHD concerned a woman who had suffered domestic violence from her husband; as Lord Bingham noted, he had ended her first pregnancy by hitting her on the stomach with a heavy vase, saying he did not want children (para 22). Under Shari’a law as applied in Lebanon, during the first seven years of life, when a male child is cared for by the mother, the father retains legal custody and may decide where the child lives. The transfer to the father at age 7 is automatic: the court has no discretion in the matter and is unable to consider whether the transfer is in the best interests of the child. As a result, Lord Bingham pointed out, women are often constrained to remain in abusive marriages for fear of losing their children (para 24). The evidence was that no family life had been established in Lebanon between the child and his father or his father’s family; it was found that the father had shown no interest in him. The applicant had managed to leave Lebanon with her son and resisted deportation from the UK on the basis of her Article 8 right to respect for family life; as this was a ‘foreign’ case, she had to show that a flagrant violation of Article 8 would arise due to the impact on her family life if she was returned to Lebanon, taking into account that the only family life that had been established was between mother and son. The Lords agreed that on return to Lebanon both the appellant’s and her son’s right to respect for their family life would be flagrantly violated in the sense of being ‘completely denied and nullified’.
Expulsion to face the risk of extremely serious adverse treatment on grounds of gender – ‘honour’ murder (see A.A and others v Sweden) or FGM (Omeredo v Austria) – has been found to fall within Articles 2 or 3. But their status as unqualified or non-materially qualified rights inevitably carries with it the need to show a high threshold of harm, and so places women under serious evidential difficulties, meaning that bringing the claim also under Article 8 (alone and/or combined with Article 14) may be advantageous in such instances.
Domestic violence – requirement of effective investigations and prevention
Bevacqva and S v Bulgaria concerned a woman who had been attacked on a number of occasions by her husband and claimed that her requests for a criminal prosecution were rejected on the ground that it was a ‘private matter’. The Court found a violation of Article 8 due to the failure of the state to adopt the measures necessary to punish and control the violent behaviour of her husband. A somewhat similar situation arose in Hajduova v Slovakia; the applicant’s husband had been detained in hospital for psychiatric treatment after he attacked her in public and threatened to kill her. She moved to a refuge with her children. Her ex-husband was released, without having undergone the required treatment, and renewed his threats. Reiterating that Slovakia has a duty to protect the physical and psychological integrity of individuals, particularly vulnerable victims of domestic violence, the Court found a violation of Article 8 in that, although the applicant’s ex-husband had not assaulted her following his release from hospital, her fear that his threats might be carried out was well-founded and the authorities had failed in their duty to ensure his detention for psychiatric treatment. A similar outcome was reached in Kalucza v. Hungary, which concerned Hungary’s failure to protect Ms Kalucza from her violent former partner. The Court found a violation of Article 8 since the Hungarian authorities had not taken sufficient measures to provide her with effective protection against him, despite criminal complaints lodged against him for assault, repeated requests for a restraining order against him, and civil proceedings to order his eviction from their flat.
These cases succeeded under Article 8, although it is readily arguable that some cases of domestic violence should rather raise issues under Articles 2 and 3, as in Opuz v Turkey which concerned the ‘honour’ murder of the applicant’s mother, who had tried to support the applicant, and repeated ‘honour’ crimes in the form of serious assaults and death threats against the applicant. The Court noted that the national authorities were reluctant to interfere in what they perceived to be a “family matter”. Turkey was found to have violated Article 2 due to its lack of due diligence in taking preventive operational measures to protect the life of the mother and, therefore, in failing in their positive obligation to protect the right to life of the applicant’s mother within the meaning of Article 2. Turkey was also found to have violated Article 3 due to its failure to take protective measures in the form of effective deterrence against serious breaches of the applicant’s personal integrity by her husband.
A number of highly significant findings were made in this context in the very recent case of Eremia and Others v Moldova. The judgment found that, while the authorities took some steps to protect the first applicant from her violent husband, a police officer, over a period of time, the steps were not effective and there was reluctance to take the matter seriously enough. In other words, the failures in the case were redolent of the familiar failings in the previous domestic violence cases considered. But not only were breaches of Articles 8 and 3 (on the basis of the state’s positive obligation to protect persons from inhuman treatment) found, but the Equal Rights Trust, intervening, persuaded the Court to treat domestic violence as a form of gender-based discrimination under Article 14 read with Article 3. The second and third applicants were the daughters of the first applicant; they complained successfully under Article 8 of the psychological effects of witnessing their mother being physically and verbally abused at their home, while being unable to help, and of verbal abuse on the part of A. The decision represents an important breakthrough in this jurisprudence since the gendered nature of domestic violence – its disproportionate and particular impact on women – was recognised under Article 14, as was the impact of such violence on children forced to witness it, under Article 8.
Recently in the UK, the IPCC reported adversely on the police investigation into the murder of Maria Stubbings who was strangled in Chelmsford, Essex, in December 2008 by her former boyfriend, Marc Chivers. Essex police knew he had killed before, and that he had served time in prison for assaulting Stubbings, but the IPCC found that they had failed to recognise the seriousness of the danger to her. As a number of journalists have recently pointed out, the Macpherson inquiry found that the police had failed “to provide an appropriate and professional service” with “processes, attitudes and behaviour” harmful to the minority ethnic community when it reported on the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Maria Stubbings’ family have called for a similar inquiry into failings in police investigations into domestic violence. The threat and actuality of a possible action under Articles 8, 2, and 3 domestically or at Strasbourg, based on the jurisprudence cited, would be likely to aid campaigns focussing on this issue.
Upholding access to abortion
The recent jurisprudence on abortion at Strasbourg has had some moderate success in alleviating harm to women, by invoking Article 8 (and in some instances Article 3 in RR v Poland and P&S v Poland). The claims so far have been brought against Poland and Ireland (ABC, RR and P&S), but cases against other states are in the Strasbourg system (for example, Z v Moldova). This is not the place to discuss this developing jurisprudence in detail, except to make two points. Poland purports to allow abortion in certain narrow circumstances but, in practice, on religious grounds, places obstacles in the way of obtaining it (RR para 84-86), while Ireland has a virtual prohibition with a narrow exception where there is a serious risk to the life of mother. The suffering of the applicants, especially in the Polish cases so far, has tended to be of a very serious nature (see, eg. Tysiac v Poland, where a complication with pregnancy resulted in blindness). Although Ireland’s current virtual complete prohibition on domestic abortion is largely ineffective due to the availability of abortion in England (ABC), it has been linked to extreme suffering in exceptional circumstances, including the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar. This position underpins the paradox of the current jurisprudence which is that cases against Poland are more likely to succeed despite its more liberal regime, since the Court can avoid a full confrontation with Ireland’s Constitutional provision of equal protection for foetal and maternal life.
The recent case of P&S v Poland, the first Strasbourg case on rape-induced pregnancy, graphically illustrates what is wrong with Polish practice on abortion. The first applicant, P, was a 14 year old girl who became pregnant as a result of rape. She therefore had a legal right to an abortion under Polish law. However, when, supported by her mother, S, she sought to access an abortion in practice, she faced a range of obstructions. The hospital that P approached disclosed her personal and medical information to the media, and the public generally. As a result, she was harassed by anti-abortion activists and representatives of the Catholic Church. She went to three different hospitals but could not obtain genuine information about the requirements for obtaining an abortion. Doctors invoked conscientious objection against performing the abortion and failed to refer P to another hospital. The stance was taken by anti-abortion hospital staff and Church officials, falsely, that S was trying to pressure P into having an abortion against her will. As a result, when P and S sought police protection from anti-abortion activists, the police instead arrested P, removed her from S’s custody and placed her in detention (paras 17, 26, 28 and 29). After delays, P eventually received a legal abortion following an intervention from the Ministry of Health, but she received no post-abortion care (para 41). The Court relied on Tysiąc and RR to reaffirm under Article 8 that once a State has adopted statutory regulations that allow abortion in specified situations, it comes under a duty to make the access available in practice. The Court found a breach of Article 8 on the basis of ‘a striking discordance between the theoretical right to… an abortion…and the reality of its practical implementation’ (para 111).
The situation in Poland may appear to be far removed from that in the UK (apart from in Northern Ireland), but given current attempts to undermine the principle of safe legal abortion by making access to abortion more difficult – in particular by allowing pro-life groups to become involved in counselling abortion-seekers (proposed by Nadine Dorries) and greater protection for conscientious objection (confirmed in a recent case involving Catholic midwives).
This blog has suggested that the guarantee of respect for private and family life under Article 8, taking account of relevant Strasbourg jurisprudence, is leading to developments in human rights principles that reduce gender-based harm to women. A pervasive pessimism in some feminist thinking on the potential of the ECHR to address and reduce such harm may have obscured the potential of such developments, which are also very recent. This blog suggests that a pessimistic view of the ECHR’s potential (and Article 8’s in particular) to aid women who have been let down by courts and legislatures in their own states, should be revisited.