Istanbul, Turkey – Turkey officially withdrew on Thursday from the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty to prevent gender-based violence, as activists pledged to continue to fight as more women than ever before are demanding their rights are protected.
Protests took place around the country and were planned again over the weekend as an appeal against the withdrawal from opposition parties was rejected by the Council of State on Tuesday.
Demonstrators clashed with police who fired tear gas in Istanbul.
Thousands are out in central İstanbul protesting today’s formal withdrawal from the #IstanbulConvention and it’s starting to turn violent as protesters force their way through police barriers pic.twitter.com/ZnOl15ioBY
— Liz Cookman (@liz_cookman) July 1, 2021
The move comes after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a midnight decree on March 20 that annulled Turkey’s ratification of the convention, legislation designed to protect women signed by 45 countries and the European Union in 2011.
Turkey was the first country to sign the Council of Europe treaty during a summit held in Istanbul, and it is the first to pull out 10 years later.
The retreat has drawn blanket condemnation from around the world and sparked months of nationwide protests in a country where domestic violence is prevalent, with at least 300 femicides and 171 suspicious female deaths recorded last year by monitoring groups.
Despite the loss of an important battle for rights campaigners, more women than ever before are talking about the Istanbul Convention and have been motivated to take action to defend what it stands for.
Withdrawal to ’empower perpetrators’
We Will Stop Femicides, Turkey’s largest women’s rights group, says its support has ballooned in recent years.
The platform keeps a record of femicide rates, supplies the media with updates about ongoing court cases and offers legal support to bereaved families or women who are suffering violence.
“The Istanbul Convention withdrawal will empower the perpetrators of violence while making the victims more powerless. So we have to take on the protection work that the authorities should do,” Gulsum Kav, co-founder of the platform, told Al Jazeera.
The doctor-turned-activist was named by the BBC last year as one of the 100 most inspiring and influential women around the world.
Beginning as a handful of activists, the group was galvanised in the wake of the brutal 2009 killing of Munevver Karabulut, a high school pupil who was cut into pieces and left in a rubbish skip by her boyfriend.
“Back then, femicides were not called femicides, they were just referred to as ‘murder’,” Kav said. “The media did not present femicide as a shocking news story, but as a weekend magazine ‘real life story’ issue.”
The suspect for Karabulut’s death was the nephew of a wealthy businessman and went uncaptured until he surrendered himself 197 days later. Karabulut’s family said the Istanbul police chief at the time blamed them for her killing, saying they should not have allowed her to be out with a man at night.
The fledgeling activist group helped Karabulut’s family seek justice and after that, they dedicated themselves to raising awareness about gender-based violence and femicide.
“With modernisation and urbanisation our society is changing and women are demanding their rights more than ever before,” said Kav. “Women are changing, but men and conventional society are staying the same.
“Addressing this difference in mindset is core to our activism.”
Turkey has been accused of backsliding on human rights in recent years, especially for women, minorities and the LGBTQ community.
The communications directorate claimed the Istanbul Convention pullout was due to the agreement being “hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalise homosexuality”, saying this was “incompatible with Turkey’s social and family values”.
While President Erdogan released his own action plan to combat violence on Thursday, with objectives including preventive services and access to justice, few are hopeful it will offer sufficient protection in a society increasingly focused on religiously motivated traditions.
“Some circles are trying to portray our withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention as a step backwards in our struggle against violence against women. Our battle did not start with the Istanbul Convention and will not end with our withdrawal from the treaty,” said Erdogan.
“We are making the fight [against violence] even stronger with our new action plan.”
As well as setting up a helpline for women who are suffering violence, and as a result having been able to intercept potential femicides before they happened, We Will Stop Femicides says its biggest success was the introduction of law 6284, offering women protection in alignment with the Istanbul Convention.
Now that work is in danger.
Yet they continue to protest regularly, usually holding placards showing the faces of women who have been killed by men. Demonstrators often face clashes with police and detentions, but it does not deter support from people of all ages, backgrounds and genders.
‘Feel stronger’ together
One regular at protests is Mutlu Kaya, who was shot by her boyfriend in 2015, when she was 19, after she rose to prominence as a contestant on the Turkish TV talent contest Sesi Cok Guzel, similar to The Voice.
She is now in a wheelchair and in March last year, her older sister was killed by a man who claimed to be her boyfriend, while Kaya’s lawyer was killed in 2019 by her husband in front of their children.
Aysen Ece Kavas, another founding member of We Will Stop Femicides, was only 18 when she got involved with the cause – she was motivated by her own emotional response to the killing of Karabulut, who was around the same age as her at the time.
In 2019, she was arrested by the police at a march and charged with, among other things, insulting the president, but the case was later dropped.
“Women’s difficulties start at birth,” she said. “Many women are unable to surmount these difficulties by themselves, but if we are all together, we feel stronger and can act more decisively.”
In 2017, the group helped launch the Istanbul women’s council, which brings together political parties, unions and other organisations once a month to discuss solutions to problems facing women.
The formula has since been rolled out across Turkey and into schools, universities and LGBTQ communities.
“With the women’s assembly, we have people with different education levels, political beliefs and ages – it doesn’t matter. We were not interested in political agendas, we are defending the rights of all women,” Kavas said.
“But what we do is not just about women, it’s about injustice.”