Kamer’s Akkoç: Women’s groups excluded from İstanbul Convention process
December 28, 2014, Sunday/ 18:38:59/ YONCA POYRAZ DOĞAN / ISTANBUL
As violence against women continues to be a growing problem in Turkey, women's rights groups have expressed concern that they face exclusion from the İstanbul Convention, a new continent-wide framework established to prevent and combat violence against women and girls, and this week's guest for Monday Talk explains how it happened.
“There are blatant violations on the part of government officials in selecting the right organizations. This commission, which includes only three organizations that the Ministry of Family and Social Policy has selected, lacks legitimacy,” said Nebahat Akkoç, a women's rights activist who established the Women's Consultation and Solidarity Center (KAMER) to combat violence against women.
She was referring to the ministry's selection process for members of the Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO) -- the first step in establishing an independent expert monitoring body for the İstanbul Convention.
Several women's rights groups, including KAMER, have expressed concern regarding their exclusion from the selection process. The three organizations that the ministry selected were the Women and Democracy Association (KADEM), the Women Healthcare Providers Association (KASAD) and the Women's Rights Association against Discrimination (AKDER).
“It is dubious whether or not those three organizations really accept the Council of Europe Convention [İstanbul Convention]. Nominations for the GREVIO candidates should be completed by March 2 . We will watch and see what happens until then,” Akkoç added.
Evaluating 2014 and the state of violence against women, Akkoç said 260 women were murdered in 2014 and about 20 percent of those women had court-ordered restraining orders against the offenders.
“We've seen that women who are supposed to be protected cannot get their identities changed, and they become open targets despite being under the protection of police officers,” she said.
Answering our questions, she elaborated on the issue.
Since KAMER was established in 1997, you have been trying to prevent violence against women. Since then, has violence against women decreased or increased in Turkey?
Since KAMER'S foundation in 1997, we have been saying that all women have experienced at least one type of violence in their lifetime. In other words, all women have experienced violence. However, women accept this violence because they do not know exactly what violence is or they accept violence as the natural result of being a woman. For that reason, we have been working to raise awareness among women both about violence and how to avoid violence.
According to two separate studies in 2008-2009 [Violence in Family study of the General Directorate for the Status of Women (KSGM) and the study of Prof. Yeşim Arat and Prof. Ayşe Gül Altınay] about violence in family, 90 percent of women said that “there is no right type of violence.” Therefore, violence has always been there.
As a result of our work, women started not to hide violence that they were subjected to, started to get support to escape violence, and violence which was experienced secretly has become visible. Even though visible violence scares us all, it is good that it is visible. As women overcome the threshold of fear, and trust officials that their applications for safety will result in their protection, then they will receive more support, and we will be able to see the real dimensions of violence. In addition, it seems unavoidable that women who seek their rights start to experience violence again.
What is the situation in regards to violence or murders in the name of “honor”?
Murders in the name of “honor” are murders in which family members make a decision about the murder and who will commit it. In recent years, there have been cases in which people who solicit such murders started to get punished. We can also say that positive changes in the TCK [Turkish Penal Code] have had a deterrent effect in preventing murders in the name of “honor.” Still, we watch news of murders in various parts of Turkey. We found that 260 women were murdered in 2014 [according to the KAMER and Bianet archives]. About 20 percent of those women were women who had protection orders with decisions of courts. We've seen that women who are supposed to be protected cannot get their identities changed, and they even become open targets together with a police officer who is supposed to protect them. We have also seen that a police officer who was ordered to protect a woman was killed in front of an İstanbul courthouse. Therefore, women who experience violence decide to get a divorce and demand protection should be seriously protected during their lifetime.
‘Municipalities manage not to open shelters'
There are not enough shelters to protect women from violence in Turkey. Besides, they seem not to be in good condition. I remember an investigative report in Taraf daily about an horrendous situation in a women's shelter in İstanbul. Do you think there have been improvements in that regard?
I also observed that shelters have not been in a very good condition, and they will never be good enough. First of all, women arrive at shelters with physiological and psychological wounds because of the cycles of violence. Besides, they have had to leave their homes and sometimes their children behind. These are difficult things. On top of that, if difficult conditions await them in the shelters, life becomes unbearable. However, not all shelters are the same. There are decent ones. Still, shelters in Turkey are not able to provide rehabilitation for women to prepare them to conditions of life. There are a lot of women who had to leave shelters because their time was up. There are only about 100 shelters in Turkey, and they are not enough. We need at least 1,500 shelters. Municipalities do not manage to open shelters as they always find reasons not to. They don't see shelters as a priority.
What is the trend in the world when it comes to violence against women?
We have mutual projects with six member states of the European Union. Plus, we have projects with some women's organizations in the Middle East. When it comes to violence against women, Turkey is behind the EU countries but ahead of Middle Eastern countries. Some of our politicians have still not understood the concept that men and women are “different but equal.” Therefore, it is difficult to say that there is strong political will that is going to provide gender equality. Europe has overcome those difficulties. But I can say that we are in a better situation than the Middle Eastern countries in which women do not have equal inheritance rights in comparison to men, and multiple marriages are legal for men. Unfortunately, no country has completely provided gender equality yet. The countries which we consider as having progressive democracies have women's shelters, too, and they work in full capacity. We can say that all women in the world experience violence and discrimination.
‘Politicians need to adopt new approaches'
I would like to expand on the “equality” question. As you know, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been accused of blatant sexism after declaring that women are not equal to men. He said that because of biological differences women and men could not serve the same functions, and manual work was unsuitable for the “delicate nature” of women. What did you think when you heard his statement?
Statements of politicians are having more positive or negative influence than they would have ever imagined. Not only remarks regarding gender issues but any type of rhetoric in Ankara might have bad rebounds in Anatolia -- it might cause tensions; might lead to hopelessness; and might even lead to violence and murders. What needs to be taken into account is laws, decrees and conventions that are signed. Where we want to reach at the end is what the İstanbul Convention asks for: the elimination of violence against women. Nevertheless, some public officials, in other words, politicians who are supposed to support implementation of laws, utter some words which reflect only their personal views, but those words attract more attention than laws or conventions. As a result, law enforcement officials do not pay attention to laws but what politicians say.
When we look at the year 2014 regarding women's rights in general, what pluses and minuses do you see?
Of course, because of the hard work of KAMER and tens of other women's organizations, we see positive developments. However, violence against women and murders are problems of the society. Only when all segments of the society become sensitive and have raised awareness to the gender equality issue, can the problem be solved. We have problems in this regard. A new and improved Civil Code, and the new law against violence have been adopted by the same government with support from women's organizations. However, when there is no strong political will, it is very difficult to have a change in mentality. We need a different approach. For example, it is a fact that birth rate is dropping and the population of youth is decreasing in Turkey. The first thing to do in this regard would be to take precautions to prevent unemployment and poverty, and then provide opportunities to encourage more childbirth. However, without doing all this, asking for more births and making statements saying that “abortions equal to murders” fuel discrimination against women and anger women.
‘Gov't has made blatant violations in selecting GREVIO delegates'
Women's organizations in Turkey have been struggling to participate in decision-making processes of the government in relation to women. Recently, women's rights groups have been protesting the government's rejection to include them in the committee to select the Turkish representatives of GREVIO, which is the auditing commission of the İstanbul Convention [GREVIO stands for the Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, established to monitor implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, also known as the İstanbul Convention, which Turkey signed in 2011]. What are your observations in this regard?
The meeting date in regards to selecting members to the monitoring commission in Turkey was announced only two days in advance. Despite hardships, women's groups went to Ankara; they attended the meeting, too, but were not included in the process of selecting three organizations that are supposed to monitor the implementation of the İstanbul Convention. The selection procedures of those three organizations were not transparent. They were obviously predetermined. Officials in Ankara had a chaotic environment for women's organizations, in order to prevent their inclusion in the process -- they were asked for various documentations, etc. In the end, officials said that women's organizations did not have sufficient documentation. KAMER had all of the documentation that the officials asked for, but was not included in the commission.
There are blatant violations on the part of the government officials selecting the right organization. This commission, which includes only three organizations that the Ministry of Family and Social Policy selected, lacks legitimacy. In addition, it is dubious as it whether those three organizations really accept the Council of Europe Convention [or the İstanbul convention]. Nominations for the GREVIO candidates should be completed by March 2. We will wait and see what happens until then.
As you know, Turkey became the first country to sign the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, known as the İstanbul Convention. The Turkish government has been always boasting about being the first country to sign it. A friend told me that Turkish women's organizations asked an official from the EU, shortly after Turkey's ratification of the convention, why the EU member states did not sign it, and the official said they were preparing the groundwork first and it would take at least one year. I think this is what our problem is.
‘Who would want to use abortion as a birth control tool?'
It was then-Prime Minister Erdoğan who kept repeating that the decreasing birth rate is a problem and families should have more children. And as you mentioned, he vehemently came out against abortion. What is your comment?
Having politics with the norms of males objectifies women. When only a few people have authority in ruling the country, those few people establish the norms. And those politicians construct modernity or conservatism over women; they do not really make efforts for gender equality. They even come out against gender equality, and they also have plans for those women whom they see as objects. Those types of politicians meddle with everything related to women, including their clothes, speech, abortion, and how many births women should have and how! For them, women are objects that need to be shaped. We always had this type of approach to women in Turkey; it's not new. This is how gender inequality has been reinforced and reinvented. At the end of the 1990s, there were official efforts for family planning in the Kurdish regions in Turkey because of fears of an increase in the Kurdish population. KAMER had made a statement back then, and had accounts of women regarding the situation. We were considering filing a lawsuit against the government, but women were timid and did not want to file any complaints about the situation. As you know, population planning and family planning are two different things. We support women's rights to have a child when they want and how many they want. Today, the ruling party's rhetoric about population is somewhat the opposite of the rhetoric of the 1990s. There has been such fallacious propaganda against abortion [by the ruling government] as if women use abortion as a method of birth control! I've been working with women for a long time and I have not heard from even one person that she has used abortion for birth control. Abortion is an operation. Women have abortions usually with fear and great hesitation. Who would want to use it as a birth control tool?
‘Girls' school attendance rates increase'
What do you think was the most exciting development of 2014 concerning women?
For me, the most exciting development has been the increase in school attendance rates for girls. This rate reached 100 percent for the first time in the history of the republic according to data from the Ministry of Education. In the provinces of Erzurum, Ağrı, Kars, Iğdır, Adıyaman, Diyarbakır and Mardin, it is 100 percent. And in most eastern provinces it is more than 99 percent. This increase is obviously due to education assistance given to families who send their daughters to school. We need more work to ensure those girls continue to attend school in the second and third parts of the 4+4+4-year education system. For example, education assistance could be increased for families who have girls in later years of education. More important, we need a change in mentality to emphasize the importance of women's education. In addition, for women over 25 years of age, the illiteracy rate is around 50 percent. We need to have projects to increase the literacy rate in this age group.
‘Detailed media coverage of murders scare women'
What do you think was the most concerning development of 2014 in regards to women?
The most fearful thing was that women who tried to escape from violence have not found enough support, they haven't been protected well enough, and therefore, they have experienced more violence and lost their lives. Since murder stories get very detailed coverage in the media and they arouse fear among women who read and watch them. Because of that, women who would like to escape from violence are afraid of the repercussions of escape since the number of women who have been murdered after demanding protection is very high.
‘Early marriages decline'
What developments do you see when it comes to early marriages in Turkey?
Early marriages have steadily declined to 33 percent in 2013 from 52 percent in 1997. In the last five years, the percentage of early marriages remains under 30 percent. Early marriages are marriages that are forced on people by their parents' decision. It is possible to prevent early and forced marriages, and for that we need the enforcement of penal sanctions, and official agencies should work with women's organizations.
An elementary school teacher for 22 years, Nebahat Akkoç founded the Women's Consultation and Solidarity Center (KAMER), which was originally established to work in Diyarbakir and its surroundings. KAMER's work to combat violence and discrimination against women continues in 23 provinces in eastern and southeastern Turkey. Akkoç has gained many awards for her work including the Third Millennium Development Goal concerning the equality and empowerment of women in 2008; the Social Democracy Foundation (SODEV) Human Rights Award in 2007; the French Légion d'Honneur medal in 2006, the Mevlana Kinship and Peace Award in 2005; the Amnesty International Ginetta Sagan Award in 2004; and Time Magazine Heroes of Our Time Award in 2003. Most recently, she received Heinrich Böll Stiftung's 2015 Anne-Klein Women Award for her efforts against domestic violence and for women's rights.