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Turkey exits the Istanbul Convention: What will be the consequences for Turkish women?

Updated: Apr 10

one line Portrait of Erdogan, Turkey withdr
Portrait of Erdogan, illustrated by Kalina Kyutchukova

On March 20th, the world woke up to historically unprecedented news: following President Erdogan's announcement, Turkey withdrew from a human rights treaty for the first time in its history. The decision ends the country's participation in the Council of Europe Convention, and domestic violence, better known, ironically, as the "Istanbul Convention." The Istanbul Convention, which entered into force on 1 August 2014, is the first international legal instrument to combat violence against women and establish legally binding standards to prevent gender-based violence. As of November 2020, 34 countries have ratified the Istanbul Convention, bringing their domestic legislation into line with the provisions of the international treaty. Bulgaria and five other EU Member States (Hungary, Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia) have not yet ratified the Convention.

Last week's publication of Presidential Decision 3718 announced the end of a much-needed struggle for human rights.

Тhis is particularly significant for Turkey as, according to the World Health Organization, 38% of women in Turkey aged 15-60 have been victims of partner violence in their lifetime,  compared to 25% in Europe.

In 2020, 471 women were killed because of their gender, 300 of them by partners and relatives, and 171 were found murdered in suspicious circumstances states the BBC. According to critics, this number may be higher as femicide cases are often registered as suicides (Deutsche Welle). This is the highest rate so far in a decade, with the number of victims rising steeply every year. According to this BBC article, femicide is a daily occurrence in the country, and sociologists say that withdrawing from the convention would exacerbate the problem, putting women in even greater danger.

What makes the Istanbul Convention so important and, above all, necessary?

The treaty is a landmark for undocumented women and women with precarious residency status, as it explicitly prohibits discrimination based on migration status and requires states to enable women whose status is dependent on an abusive partner or husband to obtain independent residency status. One of the key objectives of the Convention is "to improve understanding of the problem of violence against women and its consequences". In particular, Articles 13 and 14 are key provisions in terms of addressing Turkey's problem of femicide (the killing of women because of their gender, i.e. simply because they are women, and therefore it is always carried out by a man) in rural areas. These provisions support raising awareness as well as taking the necessary steps in education on non-violent conflict resolution in interpersonal relationships. It has been signed by all EU Member States, but is of particular importance for Turkey, which ranks first in violence against women among the other thirty-seven countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

So why did Erdogan start the debate on Turkey's withdrawal from the Convention back in the summer of 2020?

Why, after such a victory for women's protection, through which the European Commission and the Council of Europe materialised their joint effort to end violence against women and domestic violence, was it reversed with a four-line statement?

President Erdogan also presented an explanation for the surprising rejection of the convention: the agreement was used by a group of people "to normalise homosexuality". However, this violated Turkey's social and family values, presidential spokesman Fahrettin Alton explained. The official reason was that the convention posed a threat that violated Article 41 of the Turkish constitution, which protects the unity of the family.

Put another way, Erdogan, his subordinates and religious fundamentalists in Turkey say that divorces resulting from domestic violence, which the Istanbul Convention leads to, are a bigger problem than cases of femicide.

They are telling women all over the world that their role as wives and mothers is more significant than that of independent, single individuals with basic human rights and sovereignty. Whereas, in fact, the role of the Istanbul Convention is to protect women without discriminating against them on the basis of their marital status.

The loss for Turkish women is the loss for women all over the world. It shows that we still live in times where outdated and conservative notions of gender are prioritized over efforts to combat femicide. Given Turkey's alarming problem with gender-based violence, this development is deeply worrying at a time when the Istanbul Convention needs to be enforced more rigorously than ever.


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