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Assessing the CoE Report on Violence Against Women in Turkey

[dropcap size=big]O[/dropcap]n 15 October, The Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO), who are mandated by the Council of Europe, released a baseline evaluation on Turkey. As an important yet under-addressed topic, their report is warmly welcomed by PPJ. The range of issues covered are commendable. These are: physical, sexual and psychological violence; harassment; forced marriages; honour crimes; inequality; and gender-based migration and asylum. It includes existing laws and processes, and a litany of recommendations. There are, however, issues that could have been emphasised by GREVIO, and issues that have been omitted from the report altogether. And the leading question is whether Turkey will respond with positive action.

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Istanbul Convention

Turkey was the first country to ratify the ‘Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence’ (the Istanbul Convention) in 2012. GREVIO is the body of independent experts mandated to monitor the implementation of the Istanbul Convention.

Surrounding the ratification of the Convention, Turkey commenced a range reforms. For example, the comprehensive Law No.6284 ‘Protection of Family and Prevention of Violence Against Women’ was enacted in 2012, and an Istanbul Convention oversight committee was established within the Directorate General of the Status of Women.

However, GREVIO found that there are numerous factors undermining the implementation of the Convention. Primarily, there is the traditional patriarchal view of a woman’s role in society and a lack of thorough policies to ensure equality.

Then there is the lack of available data on violence against women, despite Article 11 of the Istanbul Convention requiring systematic data collection on such. Not only does this make it difficult to monitor and evaluate laws and policies, it also causes distrust amongst the population.

When NGOs and the media report worrying statistics, the government simply refutes them without providing substitute statistics. The lack of official data must be taken into consideration when reflecting on the following.


Turkey’s Patriarchal System

“Inequality among women and men is a cause as much as it is a consequence of violence against women.” – GREVIO

Numerous reports have revealed that women are not seen as equal to men in Turkish society. Last year, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report ranked Turkey at 131 out of 144 countries. The traditional view that females should stay at home and look after their families remains, which relates to violence against women in a variety of ways.

For one, a woman’s education and employment opportunities are directly related to vulnerability to violence and abuse, and vice versa. Research by Turkey’s Hacettepe University Institute of Population Studies showed that one third of females were prevented from pursuing their education. One out of ten were prevented from seeking employment.

Inequality also impacts the way that relevant policies are devised, and how officials react to violence against women. A prime illustration is the restructuring of Turkey’s Ministry of Women and Family Affairs to the Ministry of Family and Social Policies. GREVIO notes that since this change, resources are being redirected from women to family-oriented policies. This reflects the view of women as house-makers and can negate domestic violence for the sake of family. A 2016 Parliamentary Investigation Commission mandated to reduce divorce rates and promote family unity – as recorded by GREVIO – sums up this problematic affair.

It is no wonder that these discriminative policies exist when government officials regularly make sexist statements. GREVIO very briefly touches upon this issue in their report, but cases must be highlighted. For example, President Erdogan himself declared that men and women could not be equal because it is “against nature”. He advised women to have at least three, preferably five, children, calling childless women “deficient” and “incomplete”. A politician from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erhan Ekmekci, also made statements of a similar nature. He said that “when girls get educated, boys are not able to find someone to marry”.

These statements send a concerning message, reflecting the entrenched view that women are not equal to men. It communicates that repression and violence towards women will be met with impunity, impacting the way that others deal with women’s rights. Indeed, representatives at all levels of the justice system have dealt with violence against women in a problematic manner.


Enforcing the Law

“Over 80% of women who turn to the police do not have their statements taken.” – GREVIO

Violence against women is under-reported world over. In patriarchal systems such as Turkey, this is amplified. Women fear the stigma attached to abuse, or retaliation by the perpetrator or society as whole. When women do attempt to report, the crimes are rarely taken seriously. GREVIO details how police officers and judges sympathise with the perpetrator, using justifications such as the women’s choice of dress, that she was not obeying her husband, or simply saying that it is a private family matter. Judges have been known to give men reduced penalties for ‘good appearance or behaviour’. And that is if the crime even makes it to court.

The Turkish police often discourage women from reporting or seeking support services. Officers also make the woman wait for hours and do not provide them their rights. Many victims have been convinced to undertake mediation, regardless of the fact that the law prohibits this for violence against women. Turkish authorities told GREVIO that there are accountability mechanisms in place, with sanctions applied to officers who re-victimise women. However, an absence of data makes this hard to believe.

Even when a woman receives help from officials, it is not adequate. Protective measures and injunctions are, theoretically under Law No.6284, provided to woman at risk. However, GREVIO states that violations of these orders are often not addressed, with instances of victims injured or killed whilst under such measures. In 2017 alone, there were at least 337 gender-based killings. As GREVIO emphasises; “The question arises as to whether at least some of the victims of gender-based killings might have been saved”.


Violence Prevention Initiatives

“Turkey preventive intervention programmes for domestic violence offenders revolve mainly around the principles of anger management and self-control, whereas their primary focus should be on the need for perpetrators to take responsibility.” – GREVIO

The main preventative initiative in Turkey are Şönims, state-run ‘one-stop stations’. GREVIO found that these do not always provide all services needed, subjecting women to lengthy procedures to gain the help that they require. Staff can be unqualified and under-experienced. And alike state policies generally, some Şönims operate as ‘family therapy centres’ rather than supporting the victim, reinforcing traditional values. GREVIO points out the inherent problem with these services being supplied via a state-run institution. On top of patriarchal values reinforced by the state, victims might be reluctant to report and there is an over-reliance on state funding.

This highlights the need for NGOs. The GREVIO report takes an ambiguous stance on this. On the one hand, they state that NGOs have received government support for various initiatives. Yet on the other hand, they relay concern about a lack of funding for initiatives, and express “alarm over the increasingly restrictive conditions experienced by civil society organisations, in particular independent women’s organisations”. These restrictions are expanded on below. Another issue is the lack of communication between state bodies and NGOs. GREVIO urges for constructive dialogue with the inclusion of minorities such as Kurdish women, LGBTI, and migrant women.

Dialogue would both empower women and help determine successful policies. Aside from the problems with Şönims, other aid is difficult to access. For example, financial aid, help to find employment, and affordable housing. GREVIO notes a positive increase in the amount of women’s shelters across Turkey. However, Law No. 5393 provides for every municipality with a population of over 100 000 to establish a shelter. To date, only 32 of the 201 municipalities have met this obligation. It is a lengthy process to gain access to a shelter, and there are restrictive rules once residing there. There is also lack of services specifically for victims of sexual abuse.

In terms of programs for abusive men, these focus on easing his condition – seen as a psychological ailment – rather than challenging his perception on violence towards women. In addition, GREVIO points out that: “prosecution – and the other forms of protection which criminal law affords, such as pre-trial detention – tend to be viewed as a secondary process. This prevents perpetrators being held to account, lessens the opportunity of the state to protect its citizens and fails to signal Turkey’s abhorrence of violence against women.” This is despite the Istanbul Convention emphasising the end of impunity for violence against women.


Violence and Harassment

“Psychological violence is not criminalised in the Turkish Criminal Code.” -GREVIO

Data on violence and harassment against women in Turkey is scarce. The following draws on Hacettepe University Institute of Population Studies research. This revealed that the most prevalent form of violence against women in Turkey is psychological abuse. 44% of women who had ever married have experienced this, which includes: insults, humiliation, intimidation and instigating fear, and threats to hurt the victim or someone else they care about. It was also found that there is a high prevalence of controlling behaviours, such as: controlling women’s whereabouts, dress style, and who they should see or talk to.

Thus, it is concerning that psychological violence is not considered a criminal offence. Single acts can fall under crimes such as blackmail or coercion, but this fails to address patterns of pervasive abuse. GREVIO stresses the need for authorities to reevaluate the Turkish Criminal Code in this regard. Similarly, 27% of women have experienced stalking at least once in their life, yet this is not criminalised. It falls under other crimes such as blackmail, threats, sexual harassment, and violation of privacy, which do not adequately cover all cases.

Regarding sexual violence, 12% of women who have ever been married have been victimised by their husbands or intimate partners. 3% of women have been abused by those other than husbands or intimate partners. 9% of women have been exposed to childhood sexual abuse (before 15 years of age). The laws against this crime are considered appropriate by GREVIO. However, as mentioned, there is no systematic data, making it near impossible to determine the laws’ effectiveness. This also signifies that prevalence rates of violence and harassment are under-estimated. And, then there is femicide and so-called honour crimes.


Honour Crimes

“Crimes, including killings, committed in the name of “honour” continue to occur and offenders receive reduced sentences by invoking motives similar to ‘honour.’” – GREVIO

The Turkish We Will Stop Femicides Platform has been tracking violence against women since 2010. In January and February 2018 alone, 28 and 47 women were murdered respectively. From their statistics, femicide appears to be increasing. These cases are often ‘justified’ as honour killings; for example, if the woman requests separation or divorce, if there is suspicion of infidelity, or if a woman has a relationship without marriage or family permission. Article 42 of the Istanbul Convention explicitly prohibits justifications for violence against women.

Yet as GREVIO outlines, Article 29 of the Turkish Criminal Code considers it mitigating if the offence was committed “in a state of anger or severe distress caused by an unjust act”. This reduces all sentences by one to three quarters. In 2005, Article 29 was amended to remove the possibility of a reduced sentence for murder justified by custom. Nonetheless, that this Article remains at all “opens the door for unacceptable justifications of crime and victim blaming”. GREVIO believes it may not even extend to remove the possibility of honour crimes. With no judicial data, it is impossible to tell whether the amendment has made a difference.

The use of justifications for murder can be linked to the entrenched patriarchal view, enforced even by Turkish officials, that women are not equal to men and should be obedient wives. Certainly, GREVIO found that perpetrators do not feel as if they are to blame for their actions. Furthermore, there have been credible reports that women and girls in Turkey are being forced or pressured to commit suicide in the name of ‘honour’. This justification is also often used to enforce marriage upon women and children.


Forced Marriage & Related Abuse

More than 25% of women in Turkey reported having been married before the age of 18, a percentage which rises to 32% in rural areas.” – GREVIO

Forced marriage, particularly child marriage, is a grave problem in Turkey. It not only takes away a women’s freedom; it gives rise to a variety of other abuses. It leads to an increased risk for mental health problems and sexually transmitted diseases, and to complications during childbirth if the girl is underage. It negatively impacts the women’s prospects for education and employment. The Turkish Philanthropy Funds has reported that no child brides in Turkey have achieved a high school diploma. On top of this, forced marriage increases the risk of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse.

Nevertheless, forced marriage is not specifically criminalised in Turkey. Instead, it comes under deprivation of liberty, human trafficking, and sexual assault. As GREVIO states, this response is impaired. Utilising the framework of sexual assault can actually see the victims themselves facing criminal prosecution. There is also a lack of civil law to allow an annulment of a forced marriage without severe financial or administrative burdens for the victim.

The lack of legal frameworks to address forced marriages is worrying. What is worse is the authorities’ attitudes. Although the age for girls to be married was increased to 17 in 2001, people became sceptical when Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) acquired the mandate to perform civil marriages in 2017. Diyanet previously stated on their official website that those at the age of adolescence have the right to marry. On the same website, they defined adolescence as over 9 years for girls and over 12 for boys. This implies that they would allow girls to marry from the all-too-young age of 9 years.

Indeed, GREVIO notes that 60% of Turkish marriages involving a bride under the age of 18 are performed by religious leaders. The Diyanet statement sparked public outcry and a demand from the political opposition for an investigation into child marriage. But support from the ruling AKP for an investigation has yet to be seen. GREVIO expresses that they are “extremely concerned that in taking on their new responsibility, the [Diyanet] authorities presiding over religious marriage rites might not consistently uphold the standards of the law aimed at putting an end to illegal child and forced marriages”.

In 2016 the AKP also attempted to pass legislation which would retrospectively pardon those convicted of child sexual assault if they married their victim. This drew widespread condemnation and the bill was withdrawn. However, there are fears that it will return with minor revisions. On that note, laws surrounding child sexual abuse are insufficient. GREVIO records that those married before the age of 18 are almost twice as likely to experience sexual abuse. Yet sexual acts with those over the age of 15 are not considered abuse if they did not involve force, threats or deception. This contradicts the Istanbul Convention which defines abuse if there is simply an absence of freely given consent.

Child marriage increases significantly during periods of crisis. This is important to consider as Turkey has had an influx of refugees from Syria. GREVIO references a 2014 UNHCR survey which found the average age of marriage for Syrian refugee girls in Turkey was between 13 and 20 years. “Many respondents saying if they had had the money, they would not have resorted to marrying off their daughters at such a young age”. On that note, it is positive to see GREVIO dedicate a section of its report to gender-based migration and asylum.


Gender-Based Migration & Asylum

GREVIO could not verify information showing whether women, including pregnant women and women with disabilities, are being detained on arbitrary grounds in deportation centres and/or are being pressured into accepting their return to countries in which they risk being subject to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” – GREVIO

According to official data, there are 3 038 480 Syrians with ‘temporary protection’ in Turkey, including 1 632 508 women. GREVIO does stress that it is likely that there are unregistered Syrians. When it comes to abuse and violence against migrant or refugee women, they face certain difficulties in reporting and gaining help. This includes languages barriers, lack of knowledge about the Turkish legal system, discrimination from services, or other lack of access to services.

Furthermore, refugee and migrant women are particularly vulnerable to violence and abuse. Not only are they susceptible to forced marriage, but also to sexual violence; for example, in return for goods and services which has been shown to be frequent across deportation centres and refugee camps. This needs to be addressed by comprehensive policies and programmes designed specifically for migrant and refugee women.

Another issue, unaddressed by GREVIO, is that of women being forced into labour. In 2017 Turkey showed the second greatest increase in the global Modern Slavery Index, from the 58th country up from 110. It is now ranked as 48. This is largely due to Syrian refugees, with women and children are at the greatest risk. With associated problems such as physical harm from intensive labour and abuse, and psychological harm from harassment and exploitation, this must also be stemmed.


Impact of Anti-Terror Operations

“Anti-terror measures, the security operations in South-East Turkey, and the draining of resources in the civil service sector that came with the mass dismissal of civil servants following the failed coup attempt are not propitious to the fulfilment of women’s right to live a life free from violence.” – GREVIO

A particularly prevalent issue for women in current-day Turkey is the impact of anti-terror operations in the South-East and in the post-coup crackdown. GREVIO does list this at the onset as a dominant factor affecting successful implementation of policies and laws against violence against women. Yet they fail to emphasise examples throughout the report.

One impact comes from the suppression of civil society, which includes those working for gender equality and the prevention of violence against women. Over 1,300 NGOS were shut down via decree during the post-coup state of emergency, and human rights defenders arrested. Kurdish civil society, with regard to the South-East operations, has also been targeted. This severely effects women’s access to services and precludes non-state voices from the decision-making process. Even those who are not directly affected will feel the repercussions; for example, fear of acting against the state, or a strain on the remaining resources.

The post-coup crackdown has also seen a high turnover of public-sector workers. Law enforcement agencies and the judiciary have been purged, creating an inexperienced and under-trained workforce. This exuberates the already existing problems with preventing and prosecuting violence against women. In addition, an increasing amount of time and resources is being spent on both these operations. President Erdogan has said he receives daily reports on the progress of political trials, yet there is no systematic data on trials for violence against women.

Then there is the derogatory remarks and violence against women deemed to be linked to ‘terrorist organisations’. In the South East, women have been subjected to violence by the military, with pictures of naked raped or killed women shared on social media with the means of intimidation. After the coup attempt, video footage revealed a police officer ask an imprisoned soldier whether he has a daughter, threatening “I’ll f*** her”. There have been similar reports of threats to target detainees’ wives and daughters.

Women have too been imprisoned and subjected to ill-treatment. Over 17,000 women are detained in relation to the coup attempt, and others in relation to the South-East operations. Numerous studies have shown how detention puts women at increased risk for abuse, particularly sexual abuse, often perpetrated or condoned by the State. Women also have specific physical and mental health needs. They, and their families, often suffer from separation. And this is not to mention the abhorrent treatment of pregnant women and new mothers who are imprisoned alongside their children. GREVIO really must include these issues in their evaluation.


Concluding Remarks

Overall, the GREVIO baseline evaluation report mandated by the Council of Europe is a welcome analysis of a prevalent problem facing Turkey. Primarily, the remnants of a traditional, patriarchal system are preventing success against violence against women. The current context of anti-terror operations is also a concern, which should be emphasised by GREVIO. Other issues that could have been emphasised are: inequality and abuse perpetrated by state officials; females – particularly Syrian refugees – being forced into labour; difficulties facing relevant NGOs; and women in prison at risk.

Nonetheless, the range of issues covered, and the recommendations given, are commendable. It is important to stress that as a baseline evaluation, the resulting actions taken by Turkey and the timeline and extent of the GREVIO follow-up are what will determine the report’s effectiveness. Platform for Peace and Justice looks forward to seeing how this proceeds.

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