Fighting violence against women in Turkey is no easy feat

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

A court in Istanbul ruled against shutting down a popular local online platform, We Will Stop Femicidies, which documents violence against women, on September 13. The online platform was first sued in December 2021, on the grounds that it “carried out illegal and immoral activities.” A rare victory for women rights activists in a country where, in 2023 alone, 362 women were killed as a result of violence according to another online tracker, Anitsayac.

The high number of fatalities have not changed the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) decision to rejoin the Istanbul Convention, from which the country withdrew in March 2021 over what the ruling party called the treaty’s “normalization of homosexuality.” Moreover, speaking on November 25 at a university in Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insisted that withdrawing from the convention did not have a negative effect on violence against women.

Women's rights activists disagree, and as has been the case in the past, scores of women and women's rights organizations gathered across Turkey on November 25, the International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women, to remind the state that violence against women is a pressing problem.

Annual banned marches

Several governors’ offices took steps to prevent women from marching on November 25. In Istanbul, the governor's office shut down subway stations, while in Diyarbakir, protests were banned altogether. In previous years, police violently cracked down on demonstrators. This year was no exception. According to reports, women rights activists were detained in several provinces on the day of the demonstrations.

Violence is not the only issue women face in Turkey. In October 2023, Kübra Öztürk Örenli, Turkey’s first woman international Master and Grandmaster and member of the national chess team, had her stipend suspended and was removed from the federation after it came out that she was pregnant. When Örenli shared that she had been removed, the Turkish Chess Federation said it was a “misunderstanding.”

The country also suffers from growing rates of early marriages. According to reporting by Gazete Duvar, an online news platform, over 130,000 underage girls have been married in Turkey over the last ten years.

According to a report on women workers’ rights released on November 25, 1,379 women have been killed at their workplaces since 2013. The report also highlighted women's unemployment as a form of economic violence while also emphasizing how poor conditions, such as lack of health and safety mechanisms, sexual harassment, discrimination, and other forms of violence in workplaces, are all forms of violence against women.

Inadequate government measures

On November 25, President Erdoğan signed a circular vowing to implement measures to combat violence against women. The 17-point circular, published in the Official Gazette at midnight, announced that the “Monitoring Committee on Violence Against Women” was changed to “Coordination Board for Combating Violence Against Women.” Other measures announced in the circular include the continuation of legal and administrative measures to effectively implement legislation to prevent gender-based violence, resources to facilitate victims’ access to justice, and moves to ensure public institutions and organizations increase the knowledge and awareness of gender-based violence among public personnel.

“We believe that the Board of Coordination for Combating Violence Against Women, which we established with our new circular, will carry out activities worthy of the Century of Türkiye,” said Erdoğan at a university in Istanbul.

Critics, however, see the circular as a stopgap solution. For instance, restraining orders and protection measures for victims of violence are not adequately processed in Turkey; as such, the circular's promises of “zero tolerance to violence” ring hollow.

“Circulars are not a solution to violence,” said, İlke Işık, a lawyer working on women's rights. While Istanbul Bar Association President Filiz Saraç said in response to the circular that it was an indication that the state failed to understand what the fight against violence against women is all about:

Violence against women and the number of femicides continue to rise in our country. Violence against women stems from gender inequality and discrimination against women. The responsibility of ensuring life safety in preventing violence against women is the state's responsibility. The legislation enacted and the preventive measures issued to prevent violence are not effective. That is why no law, regulation or circular can prevent the increasing number of femicides.

Turkey's main opposition, the Republican People Party Deputy Chairman Aylin Nazlıaka, said, the circular “cannot deceive us by adding three or five good items.” Instead, Nazlıaka called on the state to re-sign the Istanbul convention without delay.

Speaking at a demonstration in Istanbul on November 25, Fidan Ataselim, Secretary General of the We Will Stop Femicide Platform, said, “Femicides are increasing. Women are killed by men every day. Unfortunately, they are not just killed anymore. These murders are being covered up, making them look like suicides. Women are constantly thrown out from windows and balconies. An effective investigation is not being carried out. In other words, they don't just bury women under the ground, they also bury the truth along with the women. We will again put suspicious deaths on their agenda. We will never leave so-called suicide suspicious. We will stop femicide.”

Ataselim also criticized the President's remarks that pulling out of the Convention had no negative impact on violence against women in Turkey:

This mentality should be ashamed of the women who are being sent back from police stations because the Istanbul Convention no longer exists. They should be ashamed of the women who were not protected and killed because they were told ‘There is no convention anymore’ and that the law no. 6284 is not implemented.”

Ahead of the May 2023 general elections, the AKP and its leader made alliances with numerous parties looking to dismantle women’s rights in the country, including lifting Law 6284, which protects women against domestic violence. The law was adopted in 2012.

The AKP has taken a number of controversial stances against gender equality in recent years. The ruling party has proposed limiting abortion rights, the morning-after pill, and cesarean sections. Erdoğan himself once suggested women can't be equal to men, that women must be mothers, and that families should have a minimum of three children. In 2012, then-prime minister Erdoğan equated abortion to murder.

Meanwhile, while pregnancy terminations are still legal in Turkey until the 10th week of pregnancy and up to the 20th in cases of medical risk, finding hospitals that will carry out the procedure has become practically impossible. In 2014, Erdoğan accused feminists of not understanding motherhood. Speaking at a summit in Istanbul, he reportedly said, “Some people can understand this, while others can’t. You cannot explain this to feminists because they don’t accept the concept of motherhood.” He has also said that gender equality was “against human nature” and that working women were “deficient.” Most recently, in January 2023, Turkey's state religious body, which has targeted women in the past, said that women cannot travel alone.

The overall backslide was also reflected in the Global Gender Gap Index Report by the World Economic Forum. According to the Forum's most recent report from 2023, Turkey ranked 129th among 146 countries researched.

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