With the recent withdrawal of Turkey from the Istanbul Convention, many women in Turkey have voiced concern for their safety. The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention, is in place to recognize and prevent gender-based violence. Turkey’s exit from the Convention is especially worrisome given the extreme rates of gender-based violence and femicide in the country, to begin with. Femicide is the murder of a woman on account of her gender. This decision to withdraw will have considerable negative impacts on Turkish women and other marginalized groups.
The Istanbul Convention
The Convention, whose signatories include 45 states and the EU, set the minimum standards states must implement to protect women. The Council has four main aims: preventing violence against women, protecting victims, prosecuting perpetrators, and generally implementing policies that could help the cause in any way. In May 2011, Turkey was one of the first countries to sign this legally binding convention, and while the legislation became effective in August 2014, Turkey did not work to ensure it was well-implemented.
Many other states have worked towards ratifying the Convention, and many continue to join, implement, and endorse it. The latest country to ratify the Convention is Liechtenstein, joining in June 2021. Countries already working to implement the Convention include Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Greece, Croatia, Malta, and Denmark. They have all reformed their laws and have included practices that will ensure they are meeting the requirements of the Convention. For example, Finland is funding the construction of shelters for those fleeing domestic violence. Many countries that joined have reformed their criminal laws or added criminal laws to fit the Convention. In this regard, the Istanbul Convention can greatly ensure the safety of women when it is implemented.
Reactions of Citizens to the Withdrawal
The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, announced the withdrawal in March 2021, and the country formally exited the Convention on July 1st, 2021. This decision angered many, especially groups that work to protect and support women and the LGBTQ+ community in Turkey. The LGBTQ+ community is affected by the withdrawal because the Convention states that signatories are to ensure the protection of victims regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
While the Convention has not been implemented well in the past, the total withdrawal puts women and other vulnerable communities in an even more dangerous position. The Convention had legality as it was codified in national law but it was not enforced as it should have been. Groups in Turkey that fight against gender discrimination, gender-based violence, and sexual violence have pointed out that the withdrawal ultimately protects perpetrators and leaves victims without help. A coalition of women’s groups said in a statement that “it is obvious this withdrawal will empower murderers, abusers, and rapists of women.” They further state that this withdrawal felt like the government was stepping back from protecting women from violence.
Rates of violence against women in Turkey are exceedingly high. A study from 2018 showed that 41.3% of women had been subjected to domestic abuse, of which 89.2% reported that they were attacked by their spouses. In 2020, at least 300 women were murdered, and many of these were unrecorded or covered up as suicide. A women’s rights group, “We Will Stop Femicide”, has found that in 2021 thus far, 189 women were murdered. Many women were also at a greater risk of domestic violence and abuse due to COVID-19 lockdowns. With rates of abuse, violence, and femicides this high, withdrawal from a convention that could help prevent this was enraging for many.
The President’s Reasoning for Withdrawal
One case that shocked many was the murder of 27-year-old Pınar Gültekin; she was beaten and killed by her former partner, who has since been charged with homicide. Despite cases like Pinar’s becoming more frequent, the government has done little to ensure the protection of women. Instead, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s conservative Justice and Development Party has worked to cut back on legislation that “threatens traditional family values.”
The Istanbul Convention was one such legislation that the President claimed threatened those values, arguing it would encourage divorce and the rise of homosexuality which it deems to be incompatible with Turkey’s values.
The patriarchal and traditional society in Turkey works to keep the perpetrators free and victims without much protection. The practice of honor killings has been around for a long time and occurs when a man believes that a woman in their family has brought dishonor upon them. Instead of protecting women who are subject to this violence and working to ensure it does not happen, the perpetrators are often protected or have their crimes covered up. Feminism in Turkey is also stigmatised and many members of society, especially men, refuse to recognize its necessity. To help combat these problems, the Convention ensured that religion, culture, and traditions were not used as reasoning or excuse for violence perpetrated against women.
For example, in 2005, two brothers killed their sister for choosing to divorce her husband and for living a “Western” lifestyle. They were later acquitted for their crime. Although the crimes occurred in Germany, it was the Turkish courts that acquitted them. With a system that often works harder to protect perpetrators, the worries that many hold are valid.
As such, Erdoğan’s move to withdraw from the Convention garnered international criticism, with the United States and EU claiming that this move pushed Turkey backward. Amnesty International’s Secretary-General, Agnès Callamard, called the withdrawal “shameful” and asserted that “Turkey [has] turned its back on the gold standard for the safety of women and girls.”
The President’s Plans for the Future
The president denied that withdrawing from the Convention was moving backward and said that he would continue to work towards ensuring women’s safety. He has said that Turkey would use local laws to ensure women’s protection and that “our battle did not start with the Istanbul Convention and it will not end with our withdrawal from the treaty.”
Consequently, Erdoğan revealed an “Action Plan for Combating Violence against Women,” spanning four years from 2021 to 2025. The goals of this plan are to review legislation to ensure it is effective, improve protection services, and gather data on violence. However, many believe this is not enough, and as a result, he has received backlash, with many women participating in protests over the decision. Protesters chanted “we will not be silenced, we will not fear, we will not bow down,” in the streets of Ankara.
The step that the Turkish government has taken has instilled fear in many women and people from other vulnerable communities. Nevertheless, the hopes of many are that the plans the government is putting in place to protect women will pan out and do better than they have previously done.