No one needs the Istanbul Convention more than Turkey, but Erdoğan turns a blind eye

The state of women’s rights in Turkey is critical, and gender-based violence is increasing. The country’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention will only make matters worse.

If there’s a country that needs the Istanbul Convention more than most, that country is Turkey. After becoming the first country to ratify the document on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence in 2011, the country’s government, led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has in recent years set its sights on gender-based issues, curtailing rights and liberties. Today, Turkey is characterised by an alarming state of affairs from this perspective, with femicides and abuses on the rise – a situation further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The government’s decision, last March, to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention risks precipitating an already compromised situation.

turkey, protest, istanbul convention
A protest in Turkey against the country’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention © Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Erdoğan against women

The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence owes a lot to Istanbul, Turkey’s iconic city. It’s here that the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers approved the Convention in 2011, and it’s also where, one year later, the document was ratified for the first time, by Erdoğan’s government. Entering into force in 2014, this legal instrument commits countries to respond to gender-based violence, introducing a series of new crimes and establishing new forms of protection for victims of abuse and discrimination.

Turkey’s membership, and, what’s more, the fact it was the first country to ratify, was an important turning point for the country. While, on the one hand, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) had promoted several initiatives against gender-based violence since its leader, Erdoğan, came to power in 2002, on the other hand, many forms of social and institutional discrimination still remained. The Istanbul Convention, approved with such enthusiasm and thanks to the constant dialogue with local feminist organisations, served to provide a definitive turn in this direction, giving the country a crucial tool for achieving real gender equality.

Over the last decade, however, the government has launched into a series of measures, statements, and battles regarding conservative ideas of maternity and family, limiting the rights that women had gained and sharpening inequalities. Falling approval ratings drove Erdoğan to cosy up to the more orthodox electorate, and more extremist lobbies are gaining increasing influence over political institutions. The AKP has intensified its crusade against abortion, which remains legal in Turkey but access to it is increasingly difficult. Furthermore, the Turkish president has repeatedly railed against birth control, saying, for example, that “true Muslims shouldn’t use it”, while also promoting families with many children. Women who refuse to become mothers have been called incomplete and deficient, while Erdoğan himself has stated that men and women cannot be considered equal.

In an attempt to discourage divorce, several laws to reduce financial aid to divorced women have been introduced. Government efforts in recent years have moved away from further protections also when it comes to abuse and assaults. One of the most troubling instances of this trend was a debate where amnesty for convicted child abusers was proposed in cases where the offender decided to marry the victim.

Gender-based violence in Turkey

The withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention is just the latest step in a process that is creating a very problematic environment for Turkish women. The government’s crusade against gender equality, the absence of any real plan to combat discrimination, with crutches being offered instead to perpetrators as a chance for redemption are all influencing the cultural climate in Turkey. And this is leading to more and more worrying data, both in terms of gender-based violence and women’s social inclusion.

Female unemployment in Turkey has reached a staggering rate – 70 per cent. This means that 20 million Turkish women are excluded from the labour force, which therefore remains a distinctly male domain. In 2020, the country placed 130th out of 153 on the Global Gender Gap Index, which measures the degree of social and professional equality between men and women. While these difficulties are rooted in the past and stable over time, what’s most worrying today when discussing women in Turkey is the prevalence of abuse and violence.

In 2020, there were approximately 300 femicides in the country, but the number could be at least 50 per cent higher because there were a further 171 cases of women dying in suspicious circumstances. Many deaths are wrongly reported as suicides, such as the case of a 23-year-old woman who was sexually assaulted by her boss at work and then thrown out of the window to make it look like a voluntary act. According to a 2019 investigation, over 40 per cent of Turkish women have been victim to at least one form of abuse throughout their life.

turkey, protest, istanbul convention
A protest in Turkey for women’s rights and in defence of the Istanbul Convention, with an image displaying the face of a woman who was the victim of femicide © Burak Kara/Getty Images

Over the past year, the pandemic may have given a further push in this direction. Women’s support helplines recorded a spike in phone calls reporting violence – a phenomenon that was also recorded in Italy. Overall, and seemingly paradoxically, the rate of femicides has doubled since Turkey ratified the Istanbul Convention, showing that the instrument alone is not sufficient to change the picture. Rather than reinforcing it with other national measures, Erdoğan’s government chose instead to rid itself of the Convention completely, paving the way for a further descent into the abyss for women’s rights.

People’s protests in Turkey

Faced with such a critical situation, feminist movements and human rights organisations have never stopped making their voices heard. After the withdrawal from the Convention was announced last March, thousands of people poured into the streets to protest, and the police responded with violence. Similar scenes have been witnessed in recent months in relation to news stories that deeply affected the Turkish public, such as the case of Pinar Gültekin, a 27-year-old university student who was strangled, set on fire, and then hidden in a concrete-covered bin by her former partner.

turkey, protest, istanbul convention
A protest in Turkey for women’s rights and in defence of the Istanbul Convention © Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Among the most active groups defending women’s rights in Turkey is We Will Stop Femicide, a civil platform that monitors violence, offers legal assistance to abuse victims, puts pressure on politics, and raises awareness and educates citizens on gender equality. “Women’s rights have been constantly violated in Turkey, and if the Istanbul Convention had been effectively implemented many cases of femicide and abuse could have been prevented,” states Ege Çakmak, one of the group’s activists. Çakmak sees women’s rights and lives in constant danger, with the government being a part of the problem rather than the solution.

“The Istanbul Convention is a lifesaver and, rather than talking about its withdrawal, we should be discussing how to implement its provisions in an effective way”.

— Ege Çakmak, We Will Stop Femicide

The Convention’s inefficacy is therefore not due to any inherent weakness, but rather to the simple fact that Turkey has steadfastly ignored its provisions over the last decade. “The Istanbul Convention improves women’s condition from all perspectives in Turkey. It’s a lifesaver and, rather than talking about its withdrawal, we should be discussing how to implement its provisions in an effective way,” Çakmak continues. “Rather than safeguarding women, the decision to deprive us of such an important instrument inevitably encourages men to continue being violent, in a country where femicide is already one of the biggest problems”.

The condition of Turkish women, their rights, and their dignity are at stake. This is why the battle against the withdrawal from the Convention has just begun, and it’s not destined to stop until the authorities take a step back. “We will keep fighting for our rights, for the Convention to be implemented effectively to protect every single woman in Turkey, until femicide is a thing of the past,” Çakmak concludes. “We will not stop”.

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