Women in Turkey: Are They Born to Suffer?

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Turkey and women rights
Turkey and women rights © SETimes.com - SES Türkiye

I have never been exposed to domestic violence. Even though I still clearly remember how my dearest brother employed innovative and semi-sadistic tactics to provoke me for another round of a brotherly scuffle, or how my stubborn babysitter threatened me to make me finish a mountain of rice on my plate, I cannot identify my traumatic experiences as domestic violence, while women in Turkey experience the worst kinds of abuses almost every day.

That was exactly what I thought when I saw the front page of one of the most popular newspapers in Turkey, Haberturk on October 7 as I was sipping my morning coffee. I could hardly swallow my sip as I saw a topless, semi-conscious, severely beaten woman lying faced down on a hospital bed, covered in stained blood, and stabbed from her back with a large knife which was almost buried deep into her abdomen. Uncensored. Even though I was disgusted by the newspaper’s violation of ethical and privacy rules, that morning I hoped that carefully chosen photo was going to raise some awareness of domestic violence and gender inequality in Turkey.

It really did. The photo whipped up public anger, created a lot of controversy, and drew attention to the growing and worrisome women’s right abuses and domestic violence in Turkey at a time when Turkey is deemed to be a rising star in international politics, a miraculous model in economics, and allegedly a model for many countries with its “advanced” democracy. The debate that followed revealed not only the dire situation women in Turkey have been facing, but also the deep discrepancy between Turkey’s international image and its harsh domestic realities that may eventually hinder its rise and European Union (EU) accession.

A Daunting Picture

The numbers plainly tell how alarming the situation of women in Turkey is. According to a 2009 survey conducted by Hacettepe University in Turkey, about 42% of women experience physical or sexual violence inflicted by a husband or relative at some point in their lives.1 In comparison, according to a United Nations (UN) report released in 2011, this figure is 22% in the United States (U.S.) and between 3-35% in Europe. The only countries exceeding Turkey in the report are Sub-Saharan African countries and the Pacific island nation of Kiribati.2 Honor killings are also a source of debate and shame for the country. According to a U.S. State Department report, 5375 women committed suicide and 1806 were killed by relatives accusing them of bringing dishonor on their families between 2001 and 2006 in Turkey.3

As if physical and emotional abuse is easy to overcome, Turkey is short of shelters for domestic violence survivors. Different studies point to different numbers, but as of today there are between 26 to 62 shelters in total in Turkey, while there are about 800 in Germany alone.4 In addition to the shortage of shelters and their inadequate services, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in 2011 and a different study conducted in 2009 show that only 3-8% of women who have experienced sexual or physical violence seek help from any institution.5

In addition to high rates of domestic violence and inadequate services, illiteracy and low participation to labor force are also bleeding wounds of Turkey. The same HRW report indicates that 3.8 million of the 4.7 million illiterate Turks are women.6 Rates of employment by women are no better; a World Bank report shows that only 23.5% of adult women were employed in 2009, while the figure was 64% in the EU in 2007.7 It is not that women do not enter the labor market, but is that they end up quitting due to several factors such as poor working conditions, family duties, and family and peer pressure.

Turkish parliament is not immune to low participation trend, either. The rate of female parliamentarians was 4.5% in 1935, 8.72% in 2007, and is 14.2% as of today.8 There is only one female minister in the cabinet. These rates imply a broad gender inequality and reinforce the secondary role deemed appropriate to women in decision and policy-making level.

Actually, the snapshot above is far from being surprising, given that Turkey ranked 83rd on the United Nations Development Programme’s Gender Inequality Index in 2010 and 126th out of 131 on The World Economic Forum’s 2010 Gender Gap Report.9

Why should Turkey care?

The findings above point to the bitter truth that women in Turkey are marginalized, excluded, and divested of power in Turkish political, social, and economic life. There are legitimate reasons why the Turkish government should prioritize women’s rights in general and address their grave problems.

First and foremost, every political entity is responsible for the dignity and protection of its own citizens. Regardless of their gender, religion, or political leanings, persons have to be protected from physical violence emanating from individuals, non-state actors, and the state itself. Turkey’s bad human rights record is a clear indication that Turkey failed to take necessary steps to protect the dignity and certain freedoms of its own citizens in the past. Today, Turkey cannot afford to make the same mistakes and stay indifferent to current and future abuses, given its changing Weltanschauung and aimed transformation from a “security state.”

In addition to Turkey’s responsibilities and duties towards its citizens, the country has certain obligations in international law. The documented abuses not only violate Turkish laws, but also constitute a breach of all the international agreements and human rights treaties signed and ratified so far. Turkey should adhere to the rules of international law, especially due to the preeminence Turkish constitution gives to international agreements in the legal system, if the envisioned “advanced” democracy is based on the of rule of law and accepting the pacta sunt servanda principle in international interactions.

Another international dimension of the problem is directly related to Turkey’s EU bid. At a time when the accession process is moving toward a dead-end, implementing improved human rights policies and taking bold democratization steps to meet the EU’s high standards are of the highest importance for the continuation of membership negotiations. No matter how fast the Turkish economy is growing, how proactive Turkish foreign policy is, or how improved the civilian-military relations are; without addressing the human rights issues within the country, Turkey cannot even become a privileged partner, let alone full EU membership.

A Way Forward

Despite its imperfections, Turkey is not a hopeless case. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of modern Turkey, had believed in the gender equality; therefore had granted the right to vote and be elected in the elections in 1930. In comparison, women obtained the right to vote in 1944 in France, in 1945 in Italy, and in 1948 in Belgium. If the government, local administrations, NGOs, and public in general show sincere willingness to address the issue, there is reason to believe that Turkey can once again catch up with its European counterparts.

To this end, one of the most crucial steps to be taken at the government level is to change the contradictory and patriarchal rhetoric regarding women in Turkey. This should start off with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as his statements at times contradict with his stated commitment to women’s rights. To illustrate, on different occasions he did not refrain from making it public that he did not believe in gender equality. Also, he frequently stresses that Turkish women should have at least three children. Combined with his latest decision to change the name of the Ministry for Women and Family into Ministry of Family and Social Policies, such kind of backward steps to combat gender inequality and violence against women are discouraging. He should be more aware of his charisma, influence on Turkish public, and role model responsibility. Therefore, it would be a major step in resolving the crisis “[if] we can have the prime minister, who uses such strong rhetoric, saying with full conviction that whoever slaps a woman, carries out violence against women, will face the state; the state is against [violence].”10

Another essential step would be to close the gap between legislation and practice. It is not the case that Turkey is leaving women to their own fate and reluctant to improve its laws. As reiterated elsewhere,11 the government has enacted laws, by-laws, strategy papers, national action plans and protocols on important issues such as the prevention of violence against women, on the schooling of girls, eradication of illiteracy among women, and increasing women’s participation in the labour market. To be more precise, Turkey became a party to The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1985 and entered the vanguard of countries offering civil mechanisms to protect against domestic violence by adopting the Law 4320 on the Protection of the Family in 1998.12 The current government amended the law in 2007, passed a Labor Law in 2008, signed a new Council of Europe Convention on Violence against Women and Domestic Violence in 2011, established a national mechanism, and is belatedly taking steps to amend and broaden the scope of Law 4320. However, the implementation remains problematic in every case, making the protection system unreliable and unpredictable. To avoid this, the government should work harder to transform the legislation into practice.

The efforts should not be limited to government activities alone. In this context, the increased involvement of women’s rights NGOs including but not limited to KA-DER, Mor Cati, KAMER, MAZLUMDER, Ucan Supurge in the process is promising. Despite their activism and contributions, however, the cooperation between the government and civil society is not yet at the desired level. Women’s rights NGOs and the Minister of Family and Social Policies herself should reverse this trend and encourage more cooperation and dialogue between parties for a healthier decision-making process and better policies based on a broad consensus.

In addition to the steps above, ridding the law enforcement and legal system of the rotten apples is sine qua non to be successful in endeavors to alleviate gender inequality and domestic violence. Unfortunately, abused women still risk being turned away by the police forces or prosecutors, fail to get the protection order from the officials handling their cases, and at times are being forced to reconcile with the abusers. A “zero tolerance” policy should be implemented and subjected to annual review to fight against women’s rights abusers and also civil servants in malfeasance. The goal should be more towards preventing the potential future harm rather than punishing the past behavior; therefore, measures such as electronic monitoring of the perpetrator, psychological support, and family counseling can be supportive and effective.

Last but not least, social and mass media tools play critical role in both encouraging violent behavior and taking preventive measures against abuses. In other words, it has a Janus face. Given that Turkey’s press freedom record is as bad as its human rights record, the government should ease its oversight over media operations and media organs themselves should establish auto-control mechanisms and broadcast selectively and responsibly. The best the government can do in this process is to enact deterrent laws to punish and prevent those who may violate the personal rights of a victim and/or relatives of the victim, or agitate for the sake of higher ratings. In other words, the fine line between the censorship and order should carefully be drawn in order to prevent both future press freedom and privacy violations.

Women in Turkey are not born to suffer and they deserve much more than they have now. Just because they were abused in the past and being abused now should not necessarily mean they will always be abused, beaten up, and marginalized. I am hopeful that there will not be any need to publish another sensational photo for Turkish public, government, and international community to remember and address the dire situation of women. Abusers in Turkey will eventually comprehend that women are as human as men. That will be the day I will be fully assured that our children will not go through the same nightmare their mothers and grandmothers did.

*The author thanks Melis Ulug for her help and suggestions.

Show 12 footnotes

  1. “Turkey: Backward Step for Women’s Rights,” Human Rights Watch, June 9, 2011. Available at: http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/06/09/turkey-backward-step-women-s-rights
  2. Alyson Neel, “UN report: Turkey exceeds US, EU in violence against women,” Global Rights, July 17, 2011. Available at: http://www.globalrights.info/rights/women/1814-un-report-turkey-exceeds-us-eu-in-violence-against-women.html
  3. U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – Turkey, March 11, 2008.
  4. Dorian Jones, “Turkey’s Murder Rate of Women Skyrockets,” VOA News, February 28, 2011. Available at: http://www.voanews.com/english/news/europe/Turkeys-Murder-Rate-of-Women-Skyrockets-117093538.html
  5. “He Loves You, He Beats You,” Human Rights Watch, May 4, 2011. Available at: http://www.hrw.org/reports/2011/05/04/he-loves-you-he-beats-you-0
  6. Ibid.
  7. Female Labor Force Participation in Turkey: Trends, Determinants and Policy Framework, The World Bank and Turkish State Planning Organization, report, November 23, 2009.
  8. “78 Kadin 472 Erkek Vekil Meclis’te,” (78 Women and 472 Men at the Parliament) Bianet.org, June 13, 2011. Available at: http://bianet.org/bianet/siyaset/130697-78-kadin-472-erkek-vekil-mecliste
  9. “Turkey: Backward Step for Women’s Rights.”
  10. Barcin Yinanc, “Turkish PM must stand against men killing women, says activist,” Hurriyet Daily News, August 26, 2011. Available at: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=turkish-pm-must-stand-against-men-killing-women-says-activist-2011-08-26
  11. “Draft Report – ‘2020 perspective for women in Turkey’:´Alliance of genders´ in achieving factual gender equality,” Yerelce, September 22, 2011. Available at: http://yerelce.wordpress.com/2011/09/22/draft-report-%E2%80%982020-perspective-for-women-in-turkey%E2%80%99-%C2%B4alliance-of-genders%C2%B4-in-achieving-factual-gender-equality/
  12. “He Loves You, He Beats You.”

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