Turkey debates whether to revoke European convention that protects women’s lives

Published by Brent Patterson on

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Photo credit Council of Europe

This article is written by Cheyenne Williams, a student from Vancouver Island University in a Virtual/Remote Intern/Mentorship through the EleV scholarship program.

 Over the course of July 2020, a wave of women in North America, Brazil and Turkey participated in the hashtag #ChallengeAccepted to promote women’s empowerment. Some have criticized the campaign because there is little involved in the campaign, beyond posting the black and white ‘selfies’ along with the hashtag. Others have commented that it is performative ally-ship because the photos lack impact and further state that posting a selfie does not discuss measures that benefit women or women’s equality, such as influencing employment laws to hire more women, giving visibility to trans-women, differently abled women or women of history, or even signing petitions to improve women’s rights. Conversely, proponents of the hashtag comment that the movement has brought more widespread awareness to a current and ongoing crisis in Turkey surrounding the fight to end violence against women.  

According to the We Will Stop Femicide Platform, 2019 Annual Report, 474 women were murdered in Turkey by men in 2019. The platform is comprised of members of the Bar Association, members of the media, family members of victims and members of political parties (serving in parliament or not). The platform’s July 2020 report indicates that 36 women were murdered by men in Turkey, while 11 were found suspiciously dead. Worldwide, rates of violence against women have seen an increase during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Amnesty International’s Women’s Rights Researcher Anna Błuś, lockdowns and social isolation “…have led to a spike in reports of violence against women and girls with many women and girls trapped at home with their abusers”.

Unfortunately, it is widely understood that many cases go unreported or without reprimand and it is suspected that numbers exceed the figures indicated in the reports. While the pandemic has undoubtedly contributed to violence against women in Turkey, these concerns are a longstanding issues that many people describe as being rooted in systemic misogyny and womens’ rights remain insufficient.

Further exacerbating these issues are the authorities in favour of dismantling the international treaty to end violence against women- the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, otherwise informally known as the Istanbul Convention. While officials such as President Erdogen contest that the treaty should be revoked, the country remains divided with significant predicted number of votes coming from women in the majority party, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP), otherwise known as the Justice and Development Party. August 13, 2020 was set to see the rescheduling of a board meeting for AKP, when discussion took place on whether to withdraw from the convention.

On July 13, Erdoğan signalled the government’s intention to withdraw from the Convention, stating, “Instead of translated texts, we need to determine our frame on our own. Instead of saying Copenhagen criteria, we would say Ankara criteria and proceed on our way”. While the AKP’s platform is built on prioritizing the family system, Erdoğan appears to be using this to his advantage in maintaining support from conservative party members, notes the Foreign Brief, and points out the recent campaigns for “support[ing] women’s grassroots networks and liberalisation of the hijab in official settings.” The article concludes by stating, “The AKP’s reputation as a savior of previously oppressed Muslim women is not at stake, despite the high likelihood that Turkey withdraws from the convention.”

While there appears to be much support in favour of not eliminating the Istanbul Convention, including mass simultaneous protests on August 5 in Turkey, human rights workers face many risks. Add the intersectionality of marginalized people of colour, members of the LGBTQI community, differently abled people and those who identify as a women and the risks can be considered severe, even fatal. It is defined by Voices at Risk: Canada’s Guidelines on Supporting Human Rights Defenders, “that Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRD’s) are generally women engaged in the promotion and protection of human rights.”

It is further stated that, “Women HRDs may be targeted for or exposed to gender-specific threats and violence, including in online and digital contexts, for example through social media, Internet and `ICT platforms. They are at higher risk than men of sexual and gender-based violence, online attacks, cyberstalking, sexual harassment and intimidation.”

As evidenced by critics of the Istanbul Convention, including religious leaders and political leaders, the work of WHRD’s may go against the expectations of their traditional role within family or community, “undermines family values and promotes LGBTI identities…” Others add that “Families are falling apart because of the Istanbul Convention. [Young people] are not marrying and married couples are lining up to divorce.”

It goes on to say in Voices at Risk that, “As a result, the defenders may be subjected to gender and sexual stereotypes, stigmatization or ostracism by community leaders, faith-based groups, families and communities who perceive their work as threatening religion, honour or culture that runs contrary to the laws and customs of society.”

Ultimately the fate of women’s safety appears to be in grave risk if Turkey exits from the Convention. Women’s rights are being dismissed under the guise that what exists because of the current party’s leadership, is good enough. Indirect violence is a direct result of state actors and local authorities using their power to influence policy, putting women’s rights at greater risk. It is evident that any hashtag, including #ChallengeAccepted, cannot enforce laws to penalize or commit perpetrators of violence and murder against women. Whether AKP’s decision to remain within the convention, or to withdraw, appears clear: doing so will require Turkey to formulate a new policy preventing violence against women and currently, this does not exist.

Cheyenne Williams identifies as a cis-gendered Indigenous woman (she/ her), with maternal ties to Nuu-chah-nulth territory and paternal ties to Coast Salish territory. Cheyenne also has colonial settler ties, originating from Wales and England on her maternal side and ties from Scotland and Ireland on her paternal side.

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