Turkish women activists battle to re-instate Istanbul Convention

'We don't accept one man's decision': Turkish women rise up against Erdogan's withdrawal from Convention
7 min read
06 April, 2021
On an almost daily basis, several thousand women's rights activists have hit the streets to demand Erdogan re-instate Turkey to the Istanbul Convention, aimed at combating violence against women.
Activists in Istanbul protest against the withdrawal of Turkey's Istanbul Convention [Getty]
Thousands of women across Turkey are rising up after Erdogan's exit from a key treaty to combat violence against women amid rampant domestic abuse and an alarming spike in femicides.

In a surprise decree issued at midnight on March 20, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his country's withdrawal from the covenant, known as the Istanbul Convention on violence against women.

Soon after Erdogan's decree was published, large protests were organised by women's rights groups around the country under slogans such as "Istanbul Convention saves lives", "We don't accept one man's decision" and "Annul your decision, apply the treaty!"

"You can't ignore millions of women, you can't lock in the houses, you can't wipe us out from the streets and the squares! You can't shut us up!" the local monitoring group We Will Stop Femicide Platform stated in a press release on the day the revocation was made public.

The country witnessed more protests in several provinces against the withdrawal from the pact as thousands of women and supporters vowed to continue to resist, saying their years-long struggle would not be erased in one night.

The protests also came amid fresh anger in Turkey following the recent news of a 17-year-old pregnant girl stabbed to death by her husband in the Izmir province.

"It's typical of Erdogan's personal regime to take such steps on a whim," Claire Sadar, a journalist and consultant specialising in Turkey, commented to The New Arab.

Read also: Turkey's Femicide Epidemic

She emphasised the scrapping of the agreement happened against the backdrop of a "deteriorating human rights situation" in the country, with a wide range of violations observed from the regular crackdown against the pro-Kurdish democratic opposition to the banning of LGBT activities, arbitrary arrests, and ongoing detention of activists, journalists, academics and lawyers.  

"It's remarkable that even in the face of such repression of rights and freedoms, women will still get out on the streets and show they're not going to back down," the Turkey expert pointed out.

Ankara's announcement set off the anger of women's rights organisations and widespread criticism across Europe and internationally. Europe's top human rights body, the Council of Europe, described Turkey's action as "devastating".

"Now is the time to show leadership and enhance global efforts to fight violence against women and girls, not to retreat," EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stated calling on Turkey to re-join the pact.

US President Joe Biden joined Europe to condemn the action as a "disheartening step backward" for the international movement to end gender-based violence.

Civil right groups and experts deemed the move a huge setback in the country's efforts to combat violence against women.

Turkey was one of the initial signatories and the first state to ratify the Istanbul Convention – that even bears the name of a Turkish city – 10 years ago. Annulling the ratification of the one treaty that seeks to end impunity for perpetrators jeopardises the protection of women in Turkey and beyond.

The pull-out from the agreement also aroused dismay within the political opposition. The main opposition bloc condemned the move, pledging to bring back the Convention.

Gokce Gokcen, deputy chairperson of the Republican People's Party, tweeted that abandoning the treaty meant "keeping women second-class citizens and letting them be killed."

Abandoning the treaty meant keeping women second-class citizens and letting them be killed

The government's response appeared to try to reassure whilst taking a stance that is consistent with Turkey's conservative values.

On social media, the Turkish minister for family, labour and social policies, Zehra Zumrut, said that "women's rights are guaranteed in domestic legislation, especially in the Constitution", without giving a reason for pulling out of the covenant.

A statement by Turkish Presidency's Directorate of Communications explained the country's unilateral decision resulted from the agreement being used to protect LGBT rights: "The Istanbul Convention, originally intended to promote women's rights, was hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalise homosexuality – which is incompatible with Turkey's social and family values."

Conservative groups and some officials from Erdogan's Islamic-oriented ruling party AKP have picked on the pact's principles of equality and non-discrimination on grounds of "gender", "gender identity" and "sexual orientation" arguing they undermine traditional family values and promote homosexuality.

Read also: How Turkey's Withdrawal from
the Istanbul Convention has since
divided activist movements

But many women fear exiting from the human rights covenant will no longer protect women at a time when gender violence is disturbingly ramping up.

"It is clear that this decision will further encourage the murderers of women, harassers, rapists," an advocacy group, Women's Coalition Turkey, said in its statement.

Four women were murdered by their male partners on the same day only days after President Erdogan withdrew his nation from the Istanbul Convention.

"The decision to scrap the convention wasn't surprising. It was this government who put the issue forward for public discussion, even though it was under the same ruling party that the agreement was adopted," Deniz Yuksel, Turkey advocacy specialist at Amnesty International USA, told The New Arab.

Erdogan expressed his early intent of abandoning the treaty last year in an attempt to garner support from his conservative electorate by acquiescing to the demands of hardliners as the country has been facing growing economic problems.

She noted the Turkish president appears "desperate" to shift the public attention away from the weakening economy and high inflation, while AKP's support in polls is dropping, towards "cultural battles" where he believes his party can score victories.

"But from the protests of these days, it's very clear that women from all walks of life don't see this as a cultural battle, they recognise it's about fundamental human rights," the AIUSA advocacy officer argued.

Four women were murdered by their male partners on the same day only days after President Erdogan withdrew his nation from the Istanbul Convention

Data from World Health Organization (WHO) shows at least 38 percent of women in Turkey are subject to violence from a husband or fiancé in their lifetime.

Though there are no official figures for femicide rates, over 400 women were killed in 2020 in the country, according to We Will Stop Femicide Platform, roughly tripling over the last 10 years.

The number could be even greater with dozens more found dead in suspicious circumstances. A total of 77 women have been murdered since the beginning of this year.

Instagram Post

Turkey's pull-out from the convention is particularly worrying in the current period when COVID-19 lockdown measures have led to a rise in reports of violence as many women and girls have found themselves trapped at home with their abusive partners.

"The fact that Turkish women are being beaten and killed literally in public is absolutely horrifying, and it shows Turkey more than ever needs the Istanbul Convention," Sadar uttered firmly.

"It is very disturbing to see how the government disregards women's lives and their right to live free from violence."

Earlier in March, the Turkish head of state announced the government-initiated Action Plan on Human Rights, which Amnesty International slammed in a public statement saying the plan lacks a credible commitment to protect human rights in the country.

After the presidential decree was issued, many women activists, lawyers and opposition politicians discussed if it was legally possible to take Turkey out of an international convention ratified by parliament.

Some insisted that the president cannot rescind it without the approval of parliament, and underscored that the country's constitution upholds international agreements above domestic legislation.

Others claimed that Erdogan, who gained extensive powers after his re-election in 2018, has the authority to revoke international treaties

Although the government has said to have a "zero-tolerance" policy against gender-based violence, women's rights groups accuse the Turkish authorities of not enforcing existing laws with sufficient force.

Yuksel stressed that, while a series of domestic laws were passed under the Istanbul Convention, the Turkish government has largely failed to protect women despite their appeals for help, especially in cases of domestic violence.

"It's really unfortunate because in so many instances the authorities are ineffective in responding to women's complaints of abuse from partners when there are very clear signs that violations are being perpetrated," she lamented.

In spite of the misogynistic, patriarchal climate, Turkish women activists and allies are continuing to be in the squares until the convention is reinstated and enforced.

Women's organisations have appealed to the Council of Europe to act, while some women have filed individual lawsuits calling for the withdrawal to be annulled.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec