Women’s rights activists in Turkey warn that hard-earned gains and protections enshrined in the Istanbul Convention are increasingly threatened by conservatives who argue that they contradict social customs.
Turkey was the first country to ratify the Istanbul Convention in 2011. Formally known as the European Council Treaty on Violence Against Women and Prevention of Domestic Violence, the agreement seeks to prevent abuse, prosecute perpetrators, and promote gender equality.
But the government appears to have grown increasingly lax in enforcing the treaty’s protections, while conservative political groupings have actively promoted new laws that could further entrench inequality.
For instance, a new bill proposed by the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), an ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), limits alimony payments to five years. Campaigners have argued that this would leave divorced women who have difficulty finding jobs at the mercy of family patriarchs.
“Both in rhetoric and in practice, Turkey is choosing to distance itself from the convention,” said Feride Acar, who was involved in drafting the treaty and later became president of its independent oversight panel, the Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO).
“When you take away a woman’s rights to alimony, you take away her right to a divorce,” said Aslı Karataş, a women’s rights activist, blogger and lawyer. “Female poverty should be at the centre of the alimony debate.”
Violence against women remains a pervasive phenomenon in Turkey. The We Will Prevent Femicide Platform, which releases monthly reports on violence against women, recorded 430 women killed by men in the first 11 months of 2019, with 39 in November alone.
Karataş described the violence as a “serious gender slaughter.”
A crucial aspect of the Istanbul Convention, and the subsequent Turkish bill that was drafted in accordance with the treaty, is that it lays the responsibility of protecting women at the hands of the state.
Recent evidence suggests the Turkish government’s commitment to the terms of the treaty have wavered.
In 2017, the government presented a report to GREVIO on its efforts to implement the treaty. But a shadow report prepared simultaneously by Mor Çatı (Purple Roof), a foundation that operates women’s shelters, found that Ankara had fallen short of its commitments.
According to Mor Çatı, protective restraining orders issued by the courts were being granted for shorter time periods, and while new, so-called violence prevention centres were being opened, not all were functional and those that were did not embrace the ethos of empowering and liberating women.
Mor Çatı criticised a tendency to rely too much on women’s shelters rather than pursuing better welfare policies and providing financial, physical and psychological support mechanisms for domestic violence survivors.
It also identified flaws in implementing the treaty, such as provisions that bar women above 60 and boys over 12 from being allowed into shelters, the lack of a 24/7 hotline to report abuse, and the absence of sexual violence crisis centres.
But efforts to encourage the government to implement the treaty have been met by opposition from AKP supporters and the religious right.
The conservative political party Hüda-Par criticized the bill for supposedly demonising men by accusing them of carrying out violence against women. Yusuf Kaplan, a columnist at the conservative Yeni Şafak daily, recently claimed that the treaty would lead to the dissolution of the unity of the family.
The #annulIstanbulConvention hashtag on social media saw many Turkish users arguing that the convention was in “conflict with Turkish religious and moral values,” “detrimental to the union of family,” and led to the “promotion of homosexuality”.
NT, 43, a married father of three who asked to remain anonymous, agreed that the Istanbul Convention, drawn from western culture, would only wreck homes.
“This treaty has absolutely nothing to do with our faith or our customs,” he said. “This is the work of the Europeans. The responsibility of a woman falls on the men in her family, her family will protect her.”
“You can’t stop violence with regulations that are foreign to societal customs,” he added. “On the contrary, that will only increase violence.”
While the treaty urges media to adopt language that incorporates gender equality, the increasingly hostile rhetoric has not been condemned by the ruling AKP, even though the party itself ratified the treaty.
Acar said that approach was likely meant to win points with conservative voters.
However, she argued that remaining silent or criticising the treaty was an “extremely dangerous approach” and one mirrored by other religiously-inspired movements in Europe that are increasingly speaking out against the treaty.
“I really believe that all of the opposition against the Istanbul Convention is triggered by an instinct to protect the patriarchy,” Acar concluded.