Women’s rights advocates are warning that Turkey’s government has failed to take action over rising domestic violence during the coronavirus lockdown.
Official figures released in late May by the interior ministry report a fall in assaults and murders of women. However, advocates disagree, saying that many incidents are going unreported, and that lockdown measures have forced women to share living space with potential abusers.
According to data collected by We Will Stop Femicides, a campaign group that runs a domestic violence hotline, calls to their service increased by 44 per cent in March, the month that social distancing measures were first introduced, and by 55 per cent in April. Gülsüm Kav, a doctor and co-founder of We Will Stop Femicides, told Inside Turkey that violence has increased as a result of “stay at home” guidelines, which are forcing women to share living space with violent men.
“We were hopeful at the beginning of 2020,” said Kav, pointing to Interior Ministry figures that showed a 22 per cent drop in femicide in the first quarter of the year, compared with the same period in 2019. “But our hopes were dashed when violence rose after quarantine was introduced.”
Like in many other countries, the majority of gender-based violence takes place in the home: according to a report by Turkey’s Police Academy, 72.8 per cent of femicides in 2016, 2017, and 2018 occurred at home. Partners and former partners are often the perpetrators.
According to the news website bianet.org, which tracks incidents of male violence against women and girls, men have murdered 102 women in Turkey since the beginning of 2020.
Among the cases are a number where men already known to be violent have attacked female family members. On April 21 Müslüm Aslan, who was released from prison last November after a six-month sentence for assaulting his wife, beat his nine-year-old daughter Ceylan to death.
On 25 April Fatih S, also recently released from prison, kidnapped his wife after she fled the family home with their children, and threatened police who tried to intervene with a gun.
Kav told Inside Turkey that women’s rights advocates had warned the government of a possible rise in domestic violence at the very start of the pandemic.
“In every emergency, violence against vulnerable groups such as women, children, LGBTI+ people, elderly and the disabled increases,” she said.
However, decisions taken to relieve pressure on the justice system may have made matters worse. Guidance issued in late March by the Council of Judges and Prosecutors advised that decisions made under law 6284 – intended to protect women and children from domestic violence and stalking – “should be evaluated in a way that does not threaten health”.
The law, which was passed in 2012 and has been described as a “lifebuoy for women” by campaigners, allows for suspected perpetrators to be taken from the home and placed into preventive detention. The guidance effectively suspended this measure.
“Under current conditions, when a woman faces violence and calls the police or a prosecutor for help, there are no measures to support her,” said Meriç Eyüboğlu, a lawyer who specialises in women’s rights. “If the assaulter cannot be sent away, then the women must be given shelter elsewhere. But conditions in refuges are awful, and there aren’t any alternatives.”
The guidance was also criticised by the Purple Roof Women’s Shelter Foundation.
“This decision means that the safety of perpetrators is given priority over the safety of women,” the foundation wrote in an official statement, noting that women must formally report an assault to the police, and show evidence, before they can be admitted to a refuge. “The right to security is everyone’s right, as much as the right to health.”
Şükran Eroğlu, president of the Istanbul Bar Association’s Women’s Rights Centre, told Inside Turkey that her organisation had received reports of women being sent back to their homes by police after filing domestic violence complaints.
“They have been told ‘there is a pandemic, your home is safer’ and sent back to the places where they were subjected to violence,” she said.
Eroğlu also pointed to the April release of 90,000 prison inmates. Although men convicted of murder and sexual assault were exempt, according to Eroğlu many others who had beaten, threatened or stalked women were set free.
“One of my clients informed me that her husband was released and started to threaten her by phone,” said Eroğlu. “We received numerous complaints like that.”
According to Eroğlu, the judicial system was slow to respond to domestic violence cases even before the pandemic. Emine Bulut, for instance, was murdered by her ex-husband in August 2019 in front of their ten year-old child, just a few hours after she filed a complaint against him. Ayşe Tuba Arslan was murdered in November 2019, despite having filed 23 complaints against her ex-husband in a single year.
As the government started to ease lockdown measures in May, the interior ministry issued a statement claiming there had been a decrease in domestic violence and femicide this year. The ministry’s figures record a fall of 36 per cent in femicides in the first four months of 2020, compared with the same period the year before. It also recorded a fall in domestic violence and femicide in the 70 days after March 11, the day the first coronavirus case was reported in Turkey, compared with the same period immediately before.
The Purple Roof Women’s Shelter Foundation responded that the official announcement “doesn’t reflect reality.”
According to the foundation, women have frequently reported they were unable to reach the police emergency number, or received no response when they reported incidents via KADES, a mobile app launched to support women at risk of violence. The foundation also said that some women who visited police stations reported being told by officers that they couldn’t do anything because of the pandemic.
Purple Roof is asking for law 6284 to be fully restored, alongside measures to increase the capacity and hygienic standards of women’s refuges. Gülsüm Kav, meanwhile, suggested alternative housing options for women were necessary, such as converting unused hotels into shelters, as well as a dedicated, state-supported hotline for reporting domestic violence.