On July 1, Turkey formally withdrew from the European treaty on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. The move prompted protests across the country. Women’s rights and LGBT activists took to the streets, and police responded by setting up barricades and firing tear gas.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared his country’s intention to withdraw from the treaty this past March. Better known as the Istanbul Convention, after the city where it was negotiated, the treaty was adopted in April 2011, and signed and ratified by 46 EU and non-EU countries.
The same day Turkey formally withdrew from the treaty, Erdogan announced a four-year plan promising to improve government policies on women’s rights, raise public awareness and provide Turkish women with protection and support.
“Fighting violence against women has always been our priority. I support every step taken to that extent,” Erdogan said as he unveiled the plan.
The claim is misleading.
Women’s rights groups say that in a country infamous for violence against women, which has often been treated with impunity and even justified by conservatives, the convention was a binding contract for Turkey to establish a mechanism to protect women.
Indeed, it is the first international treaty that specifically addresses abuses against women and girls. It upholds the four principles of prevention, protection, prosecution and coordinated policies to combat violence against women in all Council of Europe member countries.
Turkey was the first state to ratify the convention in November 2011, and it has now become the first country to withdraw from the convention.
The convention states that it will neither “regulate family life or structures and states do not have to change the traditional understanding of families,” nor “affect national civil law rules on marriage in any way.”
Yet, after Erdogan announced in March that Turkey would exit the treaty, his office said in a statement that the convention had been “hijacked” by people seeking “to normalize homosexuality.”
“The Istanbul Convention, originally intended to promote women’s rights, was hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalize homosexuality – which is incompatible with Turkey’s social and family values. Hence the decision to withdraw,” the Turkish president’s office said.
The statement added that other countries – Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia – did not ratify the convention because of “serious concerns,” and that Poland was also considering withdrawing “citing an attempt by the LGBT community to impose their ideas about gender on the entire society.”
Conservatives in Turkey, including supporters of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdogan’s Islamist party, see the treaty’s provisions prohibiting gender-based discrimination as undermining family values and promoting homosexuality.
While Turkey has laws that protect women from domestic violence, they are not widely enforced, and that has had deadly consequences for hundreds of Turkish women.
According to Turkey’s leading women’s rights organization, We Will Stop Femicide Platform, 300 women were killed in 2020 by spouses and family members. The group accused the government of ignoring domestic laws that protect women and the ministry of interior of concealing the number of femicide cases.
“The struggle to stop femicides in Turkey has been going on for 10 years,” the group said in its annual report.
In March, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the arrest of women’s rights activists who took to the streets of Istanbul in protest on International Women’s Day.
“The government has invoked a conservative view of gender roles and sought to sideline the oppositional voices of activists supporting implementation of the convention,” the New York-based rights group said. “These debates have continued while there has been a surge in domestic violence during the Covid-19 pandemic and despite evidence that in Turkey every year hundreds of women are killed by current or former male partners, and that those who experience violence face significant barriers to getting help or overcoming impunity for the abusers.”
The Women’s Assembly of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), an opposition party that holds the third-largest number of seats in Turkey’s parliament, tweeted on July 1st that the struggle to end violence against women will continue.
The U.S. White House condemned Erdogan’s move to withdraw from the convention, calling that decision “sudden and unwarranted” and “deeply disappointing.”
“Around the world, we are seeing increases in the number of domestic violence incidents, including reports of rising femicide in Turkey, the first nation to sign the convention,” the statement said.