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Mustafa Murat Ayhan confessed in early August to having raped, killed and dismembered Azra Gülendam Haytaoglu, a 21-year-old journalism student. A few days later, Ümitcan Uygun, the prime suspect in the murder of his former partner in 2020, was arrested on charges of intentional homicide of Esra Hankulu. These men have once again confronted Turkey with the problem of violence against women and the impunity that surrounds it. And Turkish women once again took to the streets to demand the country’s reintegration into the Istanbul Convention, which it officially abandoned on July 1. This departure was the latest in a long list of attacks on their rights which they have resisted for years.
“It was a safety net for us,” Elif Ege and Selime Büyükgöze, volunteers with Mor Çatı, an organization founded in Istanbul in 1990, say of the agreement. They say by email that this legally binding treaty is a crucial instrument when local measures are not enough and the system blocks progress. “At this point, we believe the decision to leave the agreement discourages women from using these mechanisms and sets the stage for violence.”
In July 2020, the government had already flirted with the idea of abandoning it, but had to back down under pressure from public opinion. Less than a year later, on March 20, 2021, at midnight and in silence, the President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, signed the decree canceling its ratification. This movement was interpreted as a gesture towards the most Islamist currents who saw in the agreement an attack on the traditional family and a promotion of homosexuality.
More than 100 organisations, political parties and citizens have taken legal action before the Council of State against the departure. “In our petitions, we point out that this decision is manifestly unconstitutional. And we demand the immediate suspension of the execution because otherwise it will cause irreparable damage to the lives of millions of women,” says Ezel Buse Sönmezocak, of the organization Women for Women’s Human Rights, active since 1993, in an e-mail. .
A day before the release materialized, the agency ruled in favor of its execution, by three to two, regarding one of the demands. The other cases are still pending. If feminist movements once had to fight for it to be applied, now they are fighting to get it back. “Our legal fight continues in all areas. At the same time, it’s not just a legal issue, it’s a very political issue,” says Melek Önder, spokesperson for the Stop Femicides platform, via a messaging app.
Erdogan presented his own plan which he said would make the fight against gender-based violence even stronger. “To deviate from the universal norm and law means to deprive oneself of the most important agreement which currently protects us from violence in the world. The Istanbul Convention is what will keep women alive. Therefore, it cannot be replaced,” adds Önder.
The organization We Will Stop Femicide has counted around 2,000 sexist attacks in the past five years
Nearly four in 10 Turkish women who have had a partner have experienced physical or sexual violence at least once, according to a 2015 study compiled by UN Women. The government does not publish statistics on gender-based killings, but according to data collected by Pararemos, there have been around 2,000 femicides over the past five years. In 2020, they recorded 300 and 171 suspicious deaths. The Umut Foundation, for its part, recorded 527 assaults against women, including 373 fatalities.
The system fails women before and after. Ayse Tuba Arslan, for example, filed 23 complaints for threats and insults, which were transmitted to the conciliation office, before being murdered by her ex-husband in 2019. The attacker of HK, also tell Egen and Büyükgöze, does not was arrested only when she, brutally assaulted, was in critical condition. The judge reduced his sentence alleging unjust provocation and good behavior during the trial. “The biggest problem in criminal cases related to violence against women in Turkey is impunity,” they say. Sönmezocak, who refers to low conviction rates, agrees.
Uygun’s recent arrest has brought this issue back to the fore. He was also the lead investigator in the murder of his former girlfriend, Aleyna Çakir, in June 2020: there was abuse footage, he was the last person he was with, and she had his DNA under her fingernails. But when he entered prison last January, where he spent six months, he did so for inciting drug use.
“In general, women’s rights have been a systematic target of the AKP regime [Partido de la Justicia y el Desarrollo] since 2010,” says Sönmezocak. In 2011, the same year the country signed the Istanbul Convention, Erdogan claimed that the opposition was exaggerating gender-based violence and that the Ministry of Women and Family had been replaced by the Ministry of Family and Social policies. “Omitting ‘woman’ from the name of the ministry was not just a symbolic gesture, but a strong signal that the government was prioritizing family-oriented policies,” notes Mor Çatı. “Social policies concerning women have been reduced to charity, instead of rights.”
A year later, they squarely placed abortion in the bullseye. The president called it murder and assured that no one should have the right to allow it. “Various members of the AKP, such as the Minister of Health, the Chairman of the Human Rights Commission of the Parliament and others followed this line, stating that abortion is murder and that life of the fetus is greater than that of the woman. or his election children,” recalls Sönmezocak.
Women’s rights have been a systematic target of the AKP regime since 2010
Ezel Buse Sönmezocak, spokesperson for the organization ‘Women for Women’s Human Rights’
Making women’s rights prevail is not the priority of an executive that openly refuses gender parity. “You can’t put women and men in equal positions,” Erdogan said in 2014, “it’s against nature.” On another occasion, he called those who had no children “deficient” and “incomplete”. The president’s words and deeds have spent years trying to relegate them to home and motherhood.
“The most concrete version of this approach was the one tested in May 2016, with the Divorce commission report, as we know,” say Egen and Büyükgöze. “It provided for conciliation in divorce cases, putting the ‘family unit’ above women’s lives in cases of violence, it sought the incorporation of the criterion of ‘consent’ in sexual acts with minors and the possibility of a marriage between the victim and the perpetrator in the event of abuse,” they add.
“As violence against women occurs mainly within the family, it is true that the government tolerates this violence to avoid separations”, says Sönmezocak. “For example, the government has started providing psychological assistance (sic) to women seeking divorce. In this audience, they are told to think twice about the outcome”.
The biggest problem in criminal cases related to violence against women in Turkey is impunity
In recent years, ultra-conservative groups have questioned and attacked other tools such as Law 6284, which is the basis, together with the Istanbul Convention, of the mechanisms against gender-based violence, and the organizations fear that the exit does not give wings to similar decisions. . Concerning the observed consequences, Sönmezocak underlines that the absence of official data does not allow to know the exact situation. However, independent organizations and lawyers observed, for example, problems in police stations. “In fact, this was confirmed by the Minister of Families herself. He said it’s true that there was ‘confusion’ about the application of Law 6284 on the ground,” he said.
The Turkish feminist movement, which has repeatedly resisted attacks, does not give up. “We have no hope of reversing the decision, but as independent women’s and feminist organizations, we continue our fight on the ground every day,” they told Mor Çatı. “Women and feminists in Turkey are still very angry and in every content we create and in every protest we organize, we will continue to say that we will not abandon the agreement,” says Sönmezocak.
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