The tradition-modernity duality is one of the most complex issues in Turkish society. If the common global historical discourse is one that acknowledges women’s absence from decision making processes, it is even more a veracity in Turkey as the fight for equal rights was ignored until the 20th century. For example, initial equality legislation didn’t occur until 1923. On top of that, the Islamist movement has been increasingly present in the intellectual debate, strongly influencing the social and political environment since the 1980s. Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped women from bringing positive social changes. In 1985, Turkey ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), leading the path for women to accessing basic protection and rights. Turkish women are often considered as the cornerstone of Turkey’s evolution, however and until today, women still don’t have full access to their rights as their safety is often at risk.
According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021, Turkey ranks 133rd among 156 countries in gender equality, 101st in educational attainment for women, 114th in their political empowerment, 140th in economic participation and opportunity, and 105th in health and survival. As a matter of fact, domestic violence and femicide remain serious issues in Turkey. Cases have increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2021, a man was arrested in the north of the country after a video was posted on social media, in which he is seen hitting his ex-wife in the street.
Since 2002, 6,732 women have been murdered in Turkey by their husband, fiancé, boyfriend, ex partner. It is more than one per day. This macabre count was made by opposition MP and former human rights lawyer Sezgin Tanrikulu, author of a parliamentary report submitted on March 8, for International Women’s Day. The scourge of violence against women is global, but in Turkey, feminicides and murders are regularly in the headlines. In 2019, more than 400 women were killed as a result of domestic violence and in 2020 more than 200 women were killed. This rise in femicide rates is attributable to both domestic violence and honor killings.
Turkey was the first country to sign (2011) and ratify (2012) the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention). On March 20, 2021, Turkey announced that it was withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention.
The 2011 Istanbul Convention is the first supranational treaty to offer a binding legal framework on gender based violence. Previously, no general text regulated this issue at the European level. The Convention requires governments to put in place legislations condemning violence against women and all kinds of offenses such as marital rape, female genital mutilation and forced sterilization. It defines the concepts of domestic violence and gender based violence. The Istanbul Convention promotes equality and prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. It also provides support and advice to national governments.
This was a welcome development at a time where a strong legislative framework for the protection of women from structural violence and rightly so, the Istanbul Convention was established on these 4 main pillars: prevention of violence, protection of victims, prosecution of offenders and policy coordination. It is a fundamental instrument in Europe where there are more than 3,000 feminicides per year.
By march 2019, about 45 countries and the European Union (EU) had been signatory to the treaty. A move largely applauded across multicultural backgrounds and state actors. Undoubtedly, the Istanbul Convention was expected to complement global efforts towards narrowing gender inequalities and breaking stereotypes by eliminating all forms of violence against women which still stands at 1:3 Women.
Assessment and Consequences:
Despite the positive prospect of this treaty and its adoption by 45 countries and the EU, the Istanbul Convention has still been a topical issue among the member states. As in 2020, only 21 member states had successfully ratified the treaty and six others had signed while one member state announced its withdrawal from the instrument according to the EU. One would have expected an unanimous adoption and ratification of this treaty at the level of the EU membership but instead, it has been interpreted with a lot of prejudice. Which now begs the question, why is the Istanbul Convention a problem for some countries?
The treaty has been in force for ten years now, and a debate on its content has been fueled by strong tensions in certain European countries. While these challenges remain a major concern within countries like Hungary and Poland that have contemplated their withdrawal, the sponsor of the treaty made a staggering announcement that slams women and puts their rights at risk globally.
President Recep Tayip Erdogan of Turkey on the 20th of March 2021 officially announced his country’s withdrawal from the Istanbul convention without any parliamentary voting. For what reasons? According to the Turkish government, driven by conservative religious movements, the treaty would undermine family unity, promote divorce and even encourage homosexuality. This has sparked a lot of reactions from civil rights movement, women groups to world leaders.
Women have particularly been outraged by the turnout of the once promising move by President Erdogan and are now demanding a retraction by their government to rejoin the Istanbul Convention. This is about them and it suffices to say that this could be construed as a war on women by their government. President Erdogan now faces allegations including being accused of dancing to the Islamist tune to gain political favor ahead of the next elections and even compounded by his public speeches against gender equality.
In trying to justify this damaging development, the presidency has come out to say the convention rather threatens the traditional Turkish practice and family values than eliminates violence against women and one would wonder why family values are so important to President Erdogan after a decade of signing this landmark agreement. This irrational decision puts all women at an imminent setback on their call for gender equality particularly their representation in formal political processes in the country. Currently, about 85% of the total parliamentary seat is predominantly men while almost half of Turkey’s cities have no female representation.
There has also been an incessant increase in homicides and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with women having the highest victim rating. This violence ultimately extends to workplaces and widens the pay gap. Without a mechanism for curbing further escalation and monitoring behavioral patterns towards women, more women are at risk of staying out of jobs. Adding to the existing shortage of women in Turkey’s workforce. The rippling effect of perpetual violence on women potentially affects children and may result to vices like child marriage, child soldiers, child labour and even poor mental development of children. According to a report by Human Rights Watch; “Selvi T., a petite 22-year-old pregnant with her fifth child, represents everything that can go horribly wrong when domestic violence is not taken seriously.”
Although the concrete effectiveness of the treaty can sometimes be questioned, its symbol alone is enough to offer protection for many women. The Istanbul Convention cannot be swept aside so easily especially as domestic violence and feminicides are on the rise in Europe. More than ever, it must be acknowledged that the Istanbul Convention saves lives.
CALL TO ACTION
- A collective response is needed by global women to amplify women’s actions in Turkey asking for the government to rejoin the Istanbul Convention.
- The Istanbul Convention affects all women and should be subjected to the due legislative process in Turkey to reflect the position of people.
- Turkey should return to the agreement as a party.
About the authors:
Emediong Akpabio has been on the forefront of social justice where he advocates for gender equality, women’s Rights and Inclusion, child protection and Human Rights. As an aspiring diplomat, he has constantly engaged with relevant stakeholders and actors in the civic space and sees a multilateral approach as a way of solving complex social, cultural and economic problems to create safe spaces for women in Africa.
Yasmina Benslimane is a young human rights activist with a multicultural background. Her professional experience involves national human rights institutions, NGOs and UN agencies such as UNESCO, IOM, UNHCR, and UNDP. Yasmina speaks on social and global issues particularly on topics related to political participation, youth & women empowerment, migration and peace-building. She has founded Politics4Her a feminist youth-led blog and movement that breaks stereotypes, helps women grow more informed, and encourages active participation in civil society.