Five years ago, 19-year-old university student Ozgecan Aslan was killed by a minibus driver who attempted to rape her on her way home.
In a country where femicide and violence against women is at epidemic proportions, the woman’s death marked a watershed moment.
Across the country, people took to the streets to protest violence against women, policies that protect perpetrators and the perceived inaction of Turkish state institutions. Hundreds of thousands of women spoke about their experiences of violence, harassment and abuse.
Following Aslan’s death, a petition demanding an end to reduced sentences for perpetrators of gender-based violence gathered more than 1 million signatures, making it the most popular petition in Turkish history.
Despite the widespread protests, the number of femicides rose significantly. The We Will End Femicide Platform, a women’s rights group, said almost 2,000 women had been killed since February 2015, often by their husbands or boyfriends. In 2019, 474 women were slain in Turkey.
Women’s rights activists said the necessary legal tools for the protection of women against violence already exist. In 2012, Turkey was the first country to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention.
Introduced in 2011, this treaty specifically targets violence against women and obliges ratifying countries to prevent gender-based crime, provide adequate protection and services for victims and assure the prosecution of perpetrators. The same year, Turkey’s government passed Law Number 6248 to Protect the Family and Prevent Violence Against Women and introduced gender equality policies.
Despite the legal efforts, violence against women in Turkey has increased. Few perpetrators are punished to the full extent of the law, leading to a culture of impunity.
“The enactment of law Number 6248 and the ratification of the Istanbul Convention happened because of the women’s rights movement in Turkey and because of the pressure of women’s rights groups on the government,” said lawyer Funda Ekin. “However, the problem is with the implementation of existing laws. The general attitude in society has not changed. Women are still urged to stay at home with the children, to serve and obey. There is still the attitude that in some cases, violence against women is acceptable.”
She said that view was widely espoused by government officials, judges, prosecutors and the police, making the fight against gender-based violence more difficult. “There is no awareness of what violence against women can mean. Many forms of violence are not even taken into account, such as psychological abuse and other forms of degrading treatment,” Ekin said.
Measures stipulated by the Istanbul Convention, such as the provision of enough women’s shelters and rape crisis centres, were not being met, Ekin said.
Prominent politicians of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, espoused misogynistic views. During a speech at an international women’s rights summit in 2014, Erdogan said women were not equal to men and that manual labour was not suitable for women because of their “delicate nature.” He accused feminists of “rejecting motherhood.”
He has criticised women who chose work over having children as “half-persons” and equated abortion to “murder.” Other AKP politicians suggested that women who were raped should carry babies to term and should not laugh loudly in public. For years, the Erdogan government urged women to each have at least three children.
Ekin said that what was needed was a holistic change of the societal mindset regarding gender equality and gender-based violence, starting with children’s education. “The image of masculinity needs to change but is happening only very slowly in Turkey. TV shows, books, schoolbooks — everywhere we look we only see a very traditional, very harmful gender image,” she said.
Communication between women’s advocacy and civil society groups and the AKP government has all but ceased. “After 2015, the little cooperation we had was cut entirely,” Ekin explained. “People perceived to be in the opposition are being shut out. They don’t invite women’s rights activists anymore to work on important issues together.”
Also, numerous women’s rights NGOs were closed by emergency decree following the 2016 coup attempt.
In February, Erdogan said his government would have another look at the 2011 women’s rights accord. “We will review the Istanbul Convention again,” he told fellow party members. “We will take measures that will increase the birth rate.”
It is not the first time the treaty has come under attack. For years, conservative politicians and pro-government media urged the government to scrap it, arguing that it threatened family values in Turkey and “scapegoated men.”
“There is a constant stream of negative messages,” Ekin said. “The convention is constantly being violated anyway. What the government should be saying is how much work there still is to be done.”
Despite mounting difficulties, the resolve of Turkey’s women’s rights activists has grown stronger and Ekin stressed that this yielded important successes. For example, because of close monitoring of femicide court cases by activists, courts rarely hand down reduced sentences for “unjust provocation,” a widespread practice until a few years ago.
“This is the result of our struggle and we will continue to fight for justice for women,” Ekin said.