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Turkey Considers Leaving Domestic Violence Treaty Even as Abuse Surges

Pinar Gultekin, a 27-year-old university student, was strangled before her body was crammed into a barrel and set ablaze.

“It was a barrel that we use to burn garbage,” the accused killer, Cemal Metin Avci, a 32-year-old nightclub owner, would later tell prosecutors, according to local media reports. He said he had filled the barrel with cement before dumping it in the woods.

He told the police that he had flown into a “jealous frenzy” because Ms. Gultekin did not want to be with him.

In Turkey, where at least 400 women were murdered in cases of domestic violence last year, the crime this July stirred renewed outrage over failure to combat the abuse of women. Four out of 10 women in Turkey are subjected to sexual or physical violence at least once in their lives, according to government data analyzed by an Istanbul-based advocacy group, Women for Women’s Human Rights — New Ways.

It has been nearly a decade since European leaders gathered in Istanbul to sign a treaty aimed at combating domestic violence, an agreement that at the time was seen as a remarkable advance for women’s rights.

The number of women killed in Turkey has been rising year after year and broader abuse has also soared, exacerbated recently by coronavirus lockdowns. Nonetheless, the Turkish government is considering withdrawing from the agreement, which was brokered by the Council of Europe, a human rights and rule of law organization with 47 member states, including many European Union countries, as well as Russia and Turkey.

While Turkey’s government has by most accounts failed to live up to its promises to tackle domestic violence, the idea that the country would abandon the treaty, known as the Istanbul Convention, has fueled widespread anger.

Protesters across the country, led by women, have taken to the streets to demonstrate, and a decision on the issue has been delayed as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan navigates competing interests.

The fight over the treaty — which is raging not only in Turkey but also across other parts of East and Central Europe — has become about much more than the document itself, which does not carry the force of law and is, in any case, modest in its proposals.

Although their criticisms are rarely grounded in anything written in the treaty or anything it directly advocates, right-wing groups — joined by promoters of conspiracy theories and staunch nationalists — have attacked the pact as a threat to national sovereignty.

They have also maligned it as promoting “gender politics” and pushing “L.G.B.T. ideology,” with populist leaders seizing on the treaty as a totem for the ills of Western-style liberal democracy.

Ratification of the convention has stalled in several European countries including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia and Slovakia. Russia has not even signed it.

Recently, the Polish government suggested that it was considering withdrawing, too.

While many defenders of the treaty acknowledge the limits of the convention’s effectiveness, it holds deep symbolic resonance. To be a party to the accord, they say, is effectively to acknowledge being part of a society striving for equality and human rights.

In Turkey, as word spread that the government might withdraw from the treaty this month, thousands of people took to the streets in protest.

“The choice is ours, the decision is ours, the night is ours, the streets are ours,” they chanted at one rally in Istanbul this month.

Many women’s rights advocates in Turkey say that rather than leaving the treaty, the government should be using it to overhaul a system that often allows domestic abuse to go unpunished.

The Turkish news media has been filled with cases of women asking for help from the police and the courts, only to be ignored — sometimes with deadly consequences.

A report by the Turkish Gendarmerie, a national law enforcement agency, found that from 2008 to 2017, some 2,487 women were killed, with a significant increase in the number of killings after 2013. A majority — 62 percent — were killed by their husbands, former husbands or boyfriends; and 28 percent by other relatives. A much smaller proportion — 10 percent — were killed by stalkers, neighbors or others.

Despite the dire picture of the domestic abuse painted by the numbers, faith in receiving any support from the legal system seems scant. According to Women for Women’s Human Rights — New Ways, only seven in 100 women who are subject to violence report it to the police. Prosecutors get involved in only about 4 percent of cases. Of the cases that make it to court, 21 percent result in conviction. And even then, the penalties are often lenient.

In fact, it was a case of domestic violence nearly two decades ago that shocked and embarrassed Turkey into action, and helped spur the Council of Europe to draft the original treaty.

When Huseyin Opuz tried to run over his former wife with his car, he was sentenced to three months in prison. When he stabbed her seven times, he received a fine.

“We fight a lot because her mother interferes,” he told the police at the time.

Finally, on March 11, 2002, when the woman’s mother tried to take her daughter, Nahide Opuz, to safety, Mr. Opuz stopped the vehicle and shot the older woman dead.

After exhausting all avenues in the Turkish legal system, Ms. Opuz took the case to the European Court of Human Rights. In a unanimous opinion that was the court’s first ruling related to domestic violence, Turkey was found to have failed in its duty to protect Ms. Opuz from her abusive former husband despite years of warnings and a history of violence.

When the Council of Europe gathered leaders in Istanbul in 2011 to formalize the treaty on combating domestic violence, Turkey was the first country to pledge its support.

Feride Acar, a professor at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, who played a central role in drafting the agreement, said, “I am very upset and disappointed seeing the change in the attitude of the Turkish government.” She said that when Mr. Erdogan first came to national power in 2003, his party had a much wider base of support and its policy was oriented toward the West.

“Now the party relies on a smaller electorate, which includes groups that often have more religious agendas,” she said.

Mr. Erdogan has seemed torn by the competing voices on the issue, including in his own family.

He had planned to gather his governing Justice and Development Party to announce a decision on the treaty on Aug. 5. But the meeting was postponed amid the widespread protests.

And one of Mr. Erdogan’s daughters, Sumeyye Erdogan Bayraktar, serves on the board of a rights group, the Woman and Democracy Association, which has defended the convention.

The association has said in a statement that, “In a relationship where there is no love and respect and one party is tormented with violence, we cannot talk about ‘family’ anymore,” directly confronting one line of attack from detractors.

The rift inside governing circles escalated when the women’s branch of the Justice and Development Party made a criminal complaint against an Islamist columnist who used a sexual slur to refer to female members who supported the agreement.

Mr. Erdogan condemned the insult, and called for unity in his party. He has signaled that Turkey might prepare its own convention to prevent violence against women.

That is little comfort for women’s groups.

Berfu Seker of Women for Women’s Human Rights — New Ways said, “The fact that the treaty is still under debate shows that they don’t believe in equality.”

“And,” she added, “it means they won’t show any will to establish equality.”

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