By Kirthi Jayakumar
Image: Mobilization by We Will Stop Femicide group in Istanbul. (via CHP-Istanbul/Twitter)
Ten years after it was the first signatory to the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, Turkey officially withdrew from the regime. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a decree to officially withdraw from the convention, while the Minister of Family, Labor, and Social Services, Zehra Zumrut Selcuk mentioned on Twitter that the Turkish legal system, especially its constitution, guarantees women’s rights and is “dynamic and strong enough” to implement new regulations based on need. She went on to call violence against women a crime against humanity and that Turkey will resolutely fight violence against women and observe a zero tolerance policy towards violence against women.
However, the disconnect between action and words speaks louder: the Istanbul Convention was far ahead of its times, and was the world’s first binding treaty to prevent and combat violence against women. By withdrawing from the convention, the writing on the wall speaks volumes: that Turkey will not be held accountable to an international commitment any further, and will define its own standards around addressing violence against women. As Ipek Bozkurt of We Will Stop Femicide Platform said to Al Jazeera, “There was a great campaign against the Istanbul Convention in Turkey last summer. All women’s NGOs, including the ones close to the government, said then it is not possible to discuss anything against the convention. It basically lays down the legal grounds for all the national laws to combat violence against women. So it seems like it is a decision that is not inspired by the women and women’s movements in the country.”
Reasons for withdrawal
In principle, while a sovereign state is free to decide what the conventions and treaties it will be party to by the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, a decision to withdraw from a convention is not without implications and evidences state intent and priorities. The reason for withdrawal, as a statement from the President’s office mentioned, was: "The Istanbul Convention, originally intended to promote women's rights, was hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalise homosexuality – which is incompatible with Turkey's social and family values. Hence the decision to withdraw."
In the words of Asli, a human rights defender, “The President always mentioned that the family comes first, and that we have to protect the importance of families. We have huge bias against the LGBTQIA+ communities. In the previous administration from 2006 to 2011, women’s rights and LGBTQIA+ rights were provided for, and space was provided for civil society organizations to engage on this. But now, we see such a rise in the number of instances of hate crimes and murders, and femicides targeting women. Many sex workers are killed – they are always a hidden group in narratives about violence. We don’t see any implementation of the laws to address this.” She goes on to explain how the general notion around recognizing LGBTQIA+ rights is the overall assumption that it may lead to open relationships and affect their conservative cultural values. The LGBTQIA+ community has been targeted by the Directorate of Religious Affairs too. During the Bosphorus (Bogaziçi) University protests, they were targeted by the administration. “The Istanbul convention gave the women’s rights movement great value. It aims to eliminate all forms of gender-based violence including marital rape, and also provides for alimony rights for women. It aims to mobilize the government and private sector toward violence prevention. It is relevant to LGBTQIA+ rights and supports child rights as well. Many conservative mentalities reject this acknowledgment and the accordance of rights to LGBTQIA+ people.”
Given the rampancy of violence against women, domestic violence, and femicide, the decision to withdraw from the Convention is alarming. According to the World Health Organization, as many as 38% of women in Turkey are subject to violence from a partner. For its part, Turkey does not maintain statistics on femicide. In 2020 alone, as many as 300 women were murdered in Turkey. In the words of Gokce Gokcen, the Deputy Chairman of the CHP, which was responsible for human rights, abandoning the treaty would simply mean “keeping women second class citizens and letting them be killed.”
As Asli mentions, “We are very scared now. We are not sure what will happen to women. Many women are afraid and we don’t know what this will mean for us. Men are already treating women badly both on social media and offline. When we study the profiles of murderers on social media, I see that they are aligned with the right. They’re always against feminism, and consider women enemies. They want to implement their conservative views even if it means affecting women’s rights adversely. Every day, women are killed in Turkey regardless of their age, culture, religion, or any other stratification. A few weeks ago, a 23-year-old drug user raped and killed a woman aged 92 years, and stole her money. I don’t know where this is all going. I am scared – I am thinking of my freedom and my future in this country, and now the economic crisis.”
Looking forward, women on ground call for solidarity and amplification of their voices of opposition to the government’s decision. Asli says, “We were the first signatory country and the President went back on his word. We would like feminists world over to amplify our voices and call for attention to the cause. Mobilize and dialogue with the Turkish embassies and on social media – please don’t forget us!”