On the 20th of March 2021, Turkey announced its withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention. Sparking international outrage, the withdrawal acts as a disappointing set back to the progress of gender equality. Putting Turkish women’s rights in a precarious position, the Turkish government has demonstrated its lack of dedication to ending violence against women and domestic violence. This piece addresses how and why the Istanbul Convention is an important legal framework for women’s rights. It will then discuss the political reasons as to why Turkey decided to Leave the Istanbul Convention. Finally, this piece evaluates what this now means for women and their safety in Turkey.
What is the Istanbul Convention?
The Istanbul Convention is the name for The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. Drafted in the Turkish city, the Convention provides a legal framework in which countries should follow to begin to tackle violence against women and domestic violence. Within the Convention, it promotes gender equality through both education, legislation and societal awareness. Most importantly, it highlights offences that must be criminalised by states that have ratified this Convention. The Convention was open for signature in 2011; by 2019 45 countries and the EU had signed it.
The three key elements that make up the Istanbul Convention include the prevention, protection and prosecution of violence against women and domestic violence.
–Prevention is highlighted by encouraging countries to work closely with NGOs, involve the media to eradicate gender stereotypes, run awareness-raising campaigns and provide thorough training of professionals who are in close contact with victim-survivors of violence.
–Protection is needed when harm occurs from the failure of preventive measures and victim-survivors need support. Protective measures in the Convention include access to information for women to understand their rights, easily accessible rape crisis centres, accessible shelters, free 24/7 helplines and granting police the authority to remove the perpetrator away from the victim-survivor.
–Prosecution is emphasised in the Convention by making sure the following occurrences are criminalised: sexual violence and rape, psychological and physical violence, female genital mutilation/ cutting, forced abortion, stalking, forced marriage and forced sterilisation.
The Istanbul Convention is the first far-reaching legal framework that is set out to eradicate violence against women and domestic violence. The Convention puts pressure and responsibility on states to protect women in their country and thoroughly promote gender equality. The convention is crucial for the recognition that violence against women is a human rights violation and most importantly that it is a public matter rather than a private matter.
Why Is Turkey Withdrawing?
Ten years ago, Turkey was the first state to sign the Istanbul Convention. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has ruled the country since he became Prime Minister in 2003, decided to withdraw from the Convention with no parliamentary debate on the 20th of March 2021
The Justice and Development Party, known as the ‘AK Party is a conservative populist party founded by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Much speculation suggests that the withdrawal from the Convention is due to some ideologies and beliefs within the political party. The party stresses that they base their policies on secular ideas, yet many have argued that the party is strongly based on religious Islamist beliefs. Many ideologies and policies implemented by the government have led to large protests of the alleged authoritarianism of the government.
Due to possible religious beliefs and conservative ideas of the AK Parti, the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention falls heavily on ideas and notions surrounding homosexuality. Much research and literature have suggested that Turkey has previously failed to protect LGBTQ+ rights. The previous anti-LGTBQ policies lead to the withdrawal of the Convention being further riddled with tones of homophobia. Religious conservatives within the political party have labelled the Convention as damaging for traditional Turkish family values for supposedly ‘normalising’ homosexuality.
“We thus deeply regret the decision of the President of Turkey to withdraw from this Convention widely supported in the country, without any parliamentary debate. We recall that the purpose of the Convention is to prevent violence against women, protect victims and prosecute perpetrators. It upholds women’s fundamental human right to a life free from violence.”
Council of Europe Leaders
Another reason for Turkey to withdraw from this highly important convention for women’s rights is due to the President’s political vulnerability at this current time. Although opinion polls have found that 84% of the population oppose the decision to withdraw from the convention, the withdrawal acts as a tool to seek support from within his political party and in the Islamist opposition Felicity Party. As support since the pandemic has dropped considerably for the President, removing the country from the convention acted as a symbolic gesture to his conservative supporters.
The Implications on Women’s Rights in Turkey
Withdrawing from a convention that seeks to eliminate violence and domestic violence as a political tool to gain support acts as a huge blow to the respect and value of women in Turkey. Studies have estimated that 42% of women in Turkey have experienced violence or sexual violence from their intimate partner. According to ‘We Will Stop Femicide’, in 2018, 440 women were killed, demonstrating the prevalence and commonness of violence that women experience in their lives. In addition to this, women’s safety has been further jeopardised since the pandemic. Noting the comparison between March 2020 and March 2019, there has been a 38.2% increase in domestic violence cases. Removing from the convention at such an uncertain time for public health puts women’s rights and safety in a precarious position.
This decision to withdraw from such an important instrument is a very worrying step backwards. It sends a dangerous message that violence against women is not important, with the risk of encouraging perpetrators and weakening measures to prevent it.
UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women
Withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention could potentially be dangerous for women as it ignores the prevalence of all forms of violence against women in the country. It implies that reaching gender equality is not a priority for Turkey. Not only does this pose harm to women’s rights, but also deeply affects LGBTQ+ rights. Igniting homophobic values and further intolerance from the government, LGBTQ+ people continue to be stigmatised and vilified in Turkey.
Since the withdrawal, there have been many protests and demonstrations of women and LGBTQ+ rights activists. As a response, Turkey has stated that they will continue to protect women against violence and domestic violence by other means, such as Law no. 6284 on the Protection of the Family and the Prevention of Violence Against Women, and The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
But many experts and activists think that this is not enough. The act of withdrawal signifies the lack of commitment towards women’s rights and women’s safety. Turkey cannot continue to ignore the prevalence of violence against women and treat women as second class citizens. It is furthermore concerning that the decision to withdraw has the main purpose of political gain. Using the issue of women’s safety as a playground to gain political support is unacceptable. As the rest of Europe continues to condemn the actions of Turkey, women’s rights activists and organisations are left with another disappointing setback towards the progress of gender equality.
(Featured Image Attribution: In this photo, women in Istanbul holding placards that read, “There is no coming back from our feminist struggle” and “No to intervention to our lives”, originally published by The Center on Conflict and Development (ConDev) at Texas A&M University and made available under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license through Flicker.)