Author’s note: This article contains mentions of rape, sexual assault, and violence. Reader’s discretion is advised.
For years now, the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing & Combatting Violence against Women and Domestic Violence has been recognized as the gold standard in international efforts to protect women. Not only did this treaty define violence against women as a human right violation, but it aimed to eliminate all forms of violence against women by obliging member states to take action to prevent violence, protect victims, and prosecute perpetrators.
Turkey initially served as a key actor in the process towards newfound recognition of Women’s Rights in International Law. In fact, the convention was signed in Turkey’s capital city of Istanbul, leading many to refer to it as the Istanbul Convention. Turkey was also the first official party to ratify the treaty, with a unanimous parliament vote. However, recent events reflect a complete 180-degree turn in the nation’s approach towards the convention.
On Saturday, the 21st of March, President Tayyip Erdogan issued a decree under which he announced Turkey had withdrawn from the Istanbul Convention, a move that sent shockwaves through both the domestic and international community.
Despite the initial optimism from the Turkish government and population, the move was not unexpected. Religious and conservative groups have been lobbying against the convention since early August, claiming it was degrading toward traditional family values. Erdogan’s own spokesman argued that the original intention of the Istanbul Convention had been “hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalize homosexuality”, introducing a whole new slew of issues and protests to the already intense debate.
Although Erdogan maintains that the current state of the laws and the constitution in Turkey guarantees the preservation of women’s rights regardless of whether or not the nation remains a party to the treaty, high rates of femicide and domestic violence within the country tell another story.
Numerous cases of both rape and murder across Turkey have sparked international outcry and outrage because of their gruesome nature and the attempted cover-ups that followed. In 2018, 23-year-old Sule Cet was raped in a high rise-office building before being thrown from the window. Her attackers tried to play off the attack as a suicide, an all too common occurrence in the country, and many claimed they would have been successful if not for the mass amounts of public pressure and rallies which helped secure convictions for both perpetrators. More recently, the murder of 27-year-old university student Pınar Gültekin by her ex-boyfriend in July of 2020 prompted nationwide protest as a sign of both the prevalence and innate nature these killings have in Turkish society.
Unfortunately, Pinar and Sule are only two of the thousands of women who suffer from gender-based violence in Turkey every year. According to UN Women, 4 out of 10 women in Turkey are exposed to physical or sexual violence and 3 out of 10 women are married before they turn 18. Out of these women, 48% are exposed to physical violence.
Within this, the rates of targeted femicide are even more concerning. The 2020 report of the We Will End Femicide Platform reported 300 cases of femicide and 171 suspicious women deaths. 97 of these women were killed by their spousal partners.
In light of these high-profile cases and rising rates of femicide, activists and human rights groups fear the implications on female safety that may come with withdrawing from such a monumental treaty. One group called the situation a nightmare that will only empower murders, abusers, and rapists of women. The Council of Europe called Turkey’s withdrawal from the Convention “devastating news”, noting the huge setbacks it poses towards the protection and recognition of women both in Turkey and across Europe.
While it is unclear exactly why Erdogan pulled out of the Convention, numerous sources point to his recent political vulnerability as the source of the move. For ten years now, Erdogan has been in a position of power. However, recently, he has been accused of promoting social conservatism and undermining the secular nature of the country as a way to consolidate his conservative support base. Much of this has been done to appease the hardliners in both his own AK party and the Islamist opposition Felicity Party whose strong emphasis on traditional customs and culture has often lead to homophobic and sexist sentiment.
If it is the case that Erdogan’s need for support has come above the rights and security of millions of Turkish women, the international community should be seriously concerned. The ratification of one treaty may not have a significant impact on the overall status of women in society, but withdrawal from that same treaty, especially one as central as the Istanbul Convention, is a clear sign of deteriorating women’s rights within a country. Given that the next parliamentary election is not scheduled until 2023, there is plenty of time for Erdogan to both continue to demote women to second-class citizens while enabling the patriarchal norms that enable society to brush domestic violence and femicide under the rug.
Edited by Yu Xuan Zhao
Emily is in her third year at McGill University majoring in Political science with minors in social entrepreneurship and international development.