Activists are warning that attempts by the Turkish government to change the existing law on alimony risk forcing women to stay in abusive marriages.
According to current legislation in place since 1988, a spouse who risks poverty after divorce, and who is not responsible for the marriage’s failure, “has the right to demand alimony for an unlimited period of time”.
Article 176 of Turkey’s Civil Code stipulates that this will cease to be paid only after the claimant remarries, or if one of the parties die. The claimant also loses the right to alimony if the risk of poverty disappears or if they begin leading “a dishonourable life”.
According to an amendment proposed by the conservative government led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), maintenance would be only awarded for a set period – a maximum of five years – instead of for an unlimited time.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed that “men [paying unlimited alimony] are the victims here and we will stop that,” last August when he presented a government’s action plan that included the proposed amendment to the alimony law.
Officials also argue that this measure will serve to reduce the country’s rising divorce rates.
Turkey’s minister of family, labour and social services, Zehra Zümrüt Selçuk, said in March that the reason for seeking an amendment to the existing law was “to stop the increasing divorce rate and to create a peaceful and healthy family environment”.
Data released by the Turkish Statistical Institute (TurkStat) this March showed that the number of divorces increased by 10.9 per cent in 2018 compared to the previous year. According to TurkStat, almost 142,500 Turkish marriages ended in divorce last year.
In an article published on March 2, the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper argued that “laws allowing a lengthy alimony payment for divorced women may have played a role”.
But activists and organisations supporting gender rights argue that there is no proven link between alimony provision and divorce rates.
Canan Güllü, from the Federation of Women Associations of Turkey (TKDF), said that the government itself had no way of backing up this argument.
“I asked the ministry of justice if they had established any link between the current practice of alimony and the divorce rate in the last 30 years, and the answer was no,” she continued. “The ministry didn’t even have the exact data on how many people are complaining about the current law, so it is all very arbitrary.”
“Since preventing divorce is the alleged purpose of this amendment, reliable data should be gathered first in order to understand whether there is a correlation between unlimited alimony and the increasing divorce rate in Turkey,” Güllü said. “The ministry cannot propose the amendment without knowing the answers to these questions first.”
Another fear is that the change in the law would make it much harder for women to leave abusive situations.
“The proposed amendment would force women to stay in a marriage even when they are subjected to domestic violence,” said Leyla Süren, a lawyer from the We Will Stop Femicide organisation. “The government wants to take back many rights the women in this country have fought hard for, and a right to unlimited alimony is one of those rights.”
Süren noted that, although the current law allows the same maintenance rights to both men and women, in reality the vast majority of claimants are women.
In support of the proposed changes, government officials have raised the examples of European countries such as Germany and Sweden where the duration of alimony is also limited.
However, opponents point out that, unlike in Turkey, women in Germany and Sweden receive government support and a wide range of social services, as well as higher salaries and economic independence.
Unsurprisingly, the amendment has won significant support from those currently responsible for paying alimony.
Father-of-two ŞG, who asked to remain anonymous, divorced his wife ten years ago and has been paying maintenance ever since.
“My children live with their mother,” he explained. “I am a shopkeeper and for the last three years the work has slowed down and my income is smaller than it used to be. Almost half of what I make goes to alimony. How shall I pay my rent and bills?
“I am not an AKP supporter, but in this case, I agree with their proposed amendment,” he concluded.
Recipients, on the other hand, strongly oppose the government’s proposal.
Mother of two, HA – who also asked to remain anonymous – divorced her husband five years ago.
“I was a victim of domestic violence for years while I was still married. Even when I was pregnant, I was beaten up by my husband,” she said.
HA is an accountant, but said that she had been unable to afford the childcare to allow her to work.
“The duration of alimony should not be limited,” she continued. “I am already struggling to get the alimony that I am entitled to, and every month on payday I receive degrading messages from my former husband, full of insults. If the amendment is accepted, how many women who have been abused in their marriage will dare to file for divorce?
“There is no doubt that the government can prevent many divorces with the new law, but at the expense of women who will decide to rather stay in an abusive marriage than to live in complete poverty.”