How Turkish law empowers abusers and denies women the right to seek justice

How Turkish law empowers abusers and denies women the right to seek justice
Comment: A toxic mix of pervasive misogyny and policies that roll back essential baseline protections has seen the state of women's rights in Turkey enter free fall, writes Deniz Yuksel.
6 min read
09 Apr, 2021
Women protest Turkey's withdrawal from Istanbul Convention to protect women [Getty]
As Turkey faces a country-wide femicide crisis, the government is rolling back bare minimum protections and attacking women for speaking out.

Women's rights organisations say the femicide rate roughly doubled between 2011 and 2019. At the root of this violence is  pervasive misogyny, but the recent rise in incidents is a result of government policies which fail to protect women's rights and let perpetrators off the hook.

The Turkish government does not publish comprehensive official statistics on gender-based violence, but independent monitors reveal a harrowing reality. Almost 3,500 women have been killed in Turkey since 2008, according to the "Monument Counter," a website that both documents instances of violence against women and commemorates its victims. The website recorded 66 deaths in 2008. That figure has risen steadily since, peaking at 421 deaths in 2019.

Yet, rather than protecting the rights of women and girls, the Turkish government is depriving them of a critical instrument to combat gender-based violence. On March 20, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a middle-of-the-night presidential decree to withdraw Turkey from the Council of Europe (CoE) Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, better known as the Istanbul Convention.

Turkey's withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention puts lives at risk and sends a dangerous message to violent abusers that the state is on their side

The Istanbul Convention is the most far-reaching international treaty that tackles violence against women. Parties to the Convention are obliged to follow the treaty's standards on the prevention and prosecution of gender-based violence, and establish support services such as shelters and medical help.

Turkey became the first country to ratify the Istanbul Convention in 2012, with staunch support from President Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) and women's groups. Following ratification, the government passed a series of domestic legislation that guaranteed the rights of survivors of gender-based violence.

Then in 2020, under pressure from a loud minority of religious conservatives, members of the AKP began threatening to leave the Convention. Those who opposed the treaty began to tear it down with arguments rooted in misogyny and homophobia. When the government announced its withdrawal from the treaty, it attempted to justify this decision by claiming that the Convention is being used to "normalise homosexuality" which is "incompatible with Turkey's social and family values." 

Turkey's withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention is a tragic move which puts lives at risk and sends a dangerous message to violent abusers that the state is on their side. This announcement is especially troubling given the uptick in domestic violence incidents since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As evidenced by the government's own admission, behind this decision lies a misogynistic and homophobic rationale and a profound disregard for the rights of women and girls and LGBTQI people.

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But the announcement did not come as a surprise. For nearly a decade, human rights organisations have been decrying the government's failure to enforce domestic laws established to implement the Istanbul Convention and to publish accurate statistics on gender-based violence. Survivors of abuse say law enforcement officials refuse to believe their testimonies and deny their petitions for protection. One woman made 23 complaints to police about her ex-husband before he killed her in January 2021. An investigation into police negligence in her case quickly concluded without finding fault.

When petitions do find favour with police and prosecutors, efforts to secure justice are blocked by the courts. Turkish courts have a notorious track record of releasing, acquitting, and handing reduced sentences to men accused of femicide. Online campaigns are practically the only way for people to hold Turkey's partisan legal system accountable.

Take one emblematic case: Hundreds of thousands of posts with the hashtag #SuleCetIcinAdalet (Justice for Sule Cet) circulated on social media for more than a year after two men raped and murdered Sule Cet in May 2018.

In December 2019, public pressure compelled authorities to convict the perpetrators, who were released three times during the trial process. Lack of enforcement and lenient judgements have created an atmosphere of impunity which empowers abusers and denies women the right to seek justice.

One woman made 23 complaints to police about her ex-husband before he killed her in January 2021

To make matters worse, Turkish officials at the highest level are fanning the flames of hate with misogynistic and anti-LGBTQI statements. When a group of students began protesting peacefully at Istanbul's Bogazici University in January 2021, the government responded by weaponising homophobia against the demonstrators.

"Don't listen to what these lesbians, schmesbians are saying," President Erdogan said, "Mothers are the pillar of the family." The protests are ongoing despite police 
violence and hundreds of detentions. Turkey's Interior Minister called the detainees "LGBTI perverts," in a tweet that Twitter flagged for "hateful conduct".

The crackdown on the Bogazici students is part of a broader pattern. Since a failed coup attempt in July 2016, Turkish authorities have increasingly obstructed the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Protests are frequently met with police violence, and demonstrators are subject to arbitrary detention and politically-motivated prosecution on the basis of their activism.

Women human rights defenders have not been spared. Outrage at government policies has produced the most popular women's human rights movement in the country's history. Since the government announced its intention to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, thousands of people have taken to the streets in protest.

Outrage at government policies has produced the most popular women's human rights movement in the country's history

Despite officials' assurances that the state would protect women's rights, police are obstructing feminist protests, sometimes violently, and detaining women human rights defenders.

Instead of cracking down on women for asserting their right to live free from violence, the Turkish government should start listening to their demands. Authorities should reverse the decision to leave the Istanbul Convention and work towards its full implementation.

The governments of other countries, including those of CoE members and the United States, should continue to call on the Turkish government to reverse its devastating decision. These states should ensure that human rights are at the forefront of their engagement with Turkish authorities.

Turkish officials should refrain from hateful statements which have empowered perpetrators of gender-based violence. Authorities should also respect the right to peaceful protest, stop the arbitrary detention of women and LGBTQI activists, and investigate unlawful use of force by police during protests.

In the absence of policies which respect, protect, and fulfill the rights of women and girls, Turkey's femicide crisis shows no signs of slowing down. On the day Turkey declared its withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, at least four women were reported killed . More will die unless the government takes action.

Deniz Yuksel is Turkey Advocacy Specialist at Amnesty International USA. Previously, she conducted research on Turkey at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Middle East Institute, and the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD). 

Follow her on Twitter: @denizyuksel130

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.