CHALLENGING DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IN TURKEY

By Soomin Park
Contributing Writer

Statement of Issue:

Domestic violence is a devastating reality that affects over 42 percent of women in regions across Turkey, and over 47 percent of the women in the country’s rural regions (Hacettepe University Institute of Population Studies, 2011). Unfortunately, of these who experience what they identify as domestic violence, only eight percent seek help. In another study, it is reported that only three percent of the victims report their experience to a police officer, a prosecutor, or a lawyer (Ibid 89). The magnitude and severity of domestic violence in Turkey is appalling and often lasts for decades. Various forms of domestic violence have been reported including rape, stabbings, kickings in the stomach during pregnancy, fractured skulls, being starved, being locked up with animals, and severe psychological violence. Domestic violence against women in Turkey infringes upon multiple human rights guaranteed for its population. Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe, an organization that upholds specific human rights standards for its member states. Furthermore, Turkey has both signed and ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, the international treaty that established the European Court of Human Rights.  The human rights norms in this document include an individual’s right not to be subject to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment (Article 3, ECHR), and the right to non-discrimination against women (Article 14, ECHR).

This paper will attempt to examine and address some of the potential causes and contributors to domestic violence in Turkey. It will also present the timeline of landmark legislations and court decisions against domestic violence cases and efforts by women’s rights and human rights activists. This paper will evaluate the extent to which the above events and existing policies have effectively punished and prevented domestic violence, and finally make specific policy recommendations to discourage tolerance of domestic violence and to push for the empowerment of women as individuals.

History of Problem and Current Context:

The relationship between religion and state power is an important factor to consider in approaching women’s rights in Turkey. However, one must be cautious not to generalize the cases of domestic violence in Turkey merely as results of beliefs held towards women expressed in Shari’a, or Islamic law. First, it would be wrong to assume that there is a single interpretation of the text regarding its view of women and their role in Muslim society (Hajjar 6).  Secondly, despite the fact that many Muslim values are still reflected in Turkish culture, the official role of religion in Turkey’s government is elusive. Perhaps more importantly, there are multiple other elements that comprise Turkish society that contribute to the vibrant dynamics of the struggle for women’s rights in Turkey.

Domestic violence successfully captured the international community’s attention in the 1970s, but for Turkey the issue only began to be discussed in the following decade (Erselcan 2). This was significant as the first time domestic violence was acknowledged publically, and it no longer retained its status as a “private family matter” that has no place in the public sphere. Since then the international pressure on Turkey to meet its required human rights norms has escalated. As a uniquely secular and democratic country in the Middle East, Turkey has the potential to be a forerunner in undermining discrimination against women in the region and has therefore been a target for women’s rights activists in the international community. As a member of the Council of Europe since 1949, and an aspiring member of the European Union for the past few decades, Turkey has had to show a degree of compliance with international norms regarding its human rights violations, one of the major violations being domestic violence against its women. The years of extensive efforts by women’s rights NGO’s within Turkey, such as Women for Women’s Human Rights – New Ways and the Van Women Association, have produced significant achievements against domestic violence in Turkey through intergovernmental organizations such as the European Court of Human Rights (Human Rights Watch 17).

The European Court of Human Rights, which “represents the heart of the European human rights system”, and makes binding decisions for its members, has ruled against Turkey in over 2,400 decisions between 1987 and 2001 (Çali 2012). Despite the authority granted to the European Court of Human Rights, the court is a distant actor at best for the actual implementation of its judgments and in its influence in preventing domestic violence. The effectuation of the long-term goals expressed by human rights activists would ultimately require the state government of Turkey, specifically the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Justice, to enact strong enforcements against domestic violence. It would also require the involvement of domestic institutions to actively educate and mobilize its population to ensure protection for women in Turkey on an individual level.

The foundational law that has been drafted and passed by the Turkish government against domestic violence is called the “Law for the Protection of the Family” (Law 4320) and was passed in 1998 (Human Rights Watch: News on the Web 2012). Its text states that “If a spouse or child or another member of family living under the same roof is subject to abuse, a notification is made either by the victim or by the Public Prosecutor… the accused spouse can be ordered not to use violence, leave the dwelling and stay away from spouse and children, not to damage the property of spouse or children, not to cause distress using means of communication, to surrender weapon to police, and not to arrive to shared dwelling under the influence of alcohol or other substances.” Law 4320 mainly applies after domestic violence has occurred and has been reported. The application of the orders is left to the Public Prosecutor to monitor, who can “file a suit at Magistrates Court against spouse who does not abide by order” (Clause 2 in Law 4320). The accused spouse is then sentenced to prison for three to six months. At the time of its ratification, Law 4320 had set Turkey apart as an advocate of human rights compared to the rest of the countries in the Middle East. However, since the ratification of the law, Turkey has failed to satisfy the various interest groups that have been closely monitoring the implementation and the effectiveness of Law 4320.

Critique of Existing Policies:

There have been numerous critiques and complaints against the “Law for the Protection of the Family”. Statistics and court proceedings, including European Court of Human Rights cases, have shown that domestic violence has not been significantly reduced since the ratification of the law in 1998. The ECHR made a landmark decision in Opuz v. Turkey in the year 2009 when the “Court found Turkey guilty of gender discrimination insofar as ‘domestic violence affected mainly women and that general and discriminatory judicial passivity in Turkey created a climate that was conducive to domestic violence”(Opuz). This was significant because this ruling publically condemned Turkey in its failures to fulfill its declared obligations to protect its women from domestic violence. It specifically condemned the shortcomings and indifference of the authorities who were supposed to ensure protection for the victims of domestic violence. Their lack of response to the complaints of the victims have contributed to tragedies such as the case of Ms. Opuz who suffered domestic violence at the hands of her husband along with her mother, who was ultimately murdered by her husband.

The main criticisms of Law 4320 made by women’s rights activists and lawyers in Turkey listed such inadequacies of implementation by enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges. The problematic implementation is due to a lack of training and even will: in some cases police officers failed to respond to complaints, judges asked for medical forms from the women, although there was no such requirement mandated by national law. Another major criticism of Law 4320 addressed gaps in the law that led to the exclusion of the most vulnerable women from being eligible for protection as many of the Kurdish women in the Southeastern region are in unregistered or religious marriages. Many of these women were deterred from reporting the abuse they were facing because they distrusted the police and the state due to the complex regional conflict. This contributed further to the excruciatingly low percentage of women who actually sought help and reported abuses (Human Rights Watch 16). Lastly, the number of shelters in Turkey that are available to women for refuge fell short of the goal stated in the Law on Municipalities, which is for at least one shelter to be established in every municipality with 50,000 or more residents.

Quite recently, perhaps with the help of the Opuz v. Turkey court ruling in 2009 by the ECHR, there was a historical victory for women’s rights activists in Turkey. A new law, called the “Law on the Protection of the Family and the Prevention of Violence against Women”, was passed in March 2012. The new law was passed by the Turkish Parliament on International Women’s Day and addressed many of the shortcomings of Law 4320. The biggest accomplishment of the new law is that it is capable of protecting all women, regardless of their marital status (Hurriyet Daily News 2012). The imprisonment of the offender is more immediate, and protection orders are to be issued by the police officer the moment the victim needs protection. In the past, the victim was not able to access protection immediately if the violence occurred outside of office hours. Additionally, the law includes different ways of providing protection for the abused, such as the option of relocation for the victim if she feels the need to.

Policy Recommendations:

The recent achievements of the new law are anticipated to ensure greater protection for women in Turkey, but there are more steps that can be taken. Programs that build trust between the protectors, including police officers, prosecutors, judges, and shelters, and the victims of domestic violence should be created. Trainings for the officers and prosecutors should emphasize the goal of ensuring the woman’s safety. Furthermore, the employment of more women officers would be beneficial as currently their presence is minimal.

In addition, women’s rights activists and lawyers in Turkey have noted that the language referring to the woman as an individual is crucial. Nazan Moroglu, the activist and lawyer interviewed in the Hurriyet Daily News article regarding the new law, states that the name of the new law should have been “Law on Preventing Violence against Women and Individuals of the Family” rather than “Law on the Protection of the Family and the Prevention of Violence against Women”. The wording is central in guaranteeing solid mechanisms for activists to provide protection for women and to advance women’s rights, as the perception of a woman as a family member, rather than an individual, has been used against them in the past. There have been numerous court cases where the judges ended up ruling against the woman victim for the sake of “protecting the family”. This reveals that the ultimate goal of women’s rights advocates, and of the Turkish government must involve changes in the mentality of its population toward women. Despite the remarkable progress that has been seen in Turkey’s legislation, regarding the protection of women against domestic violence in Turkey, there remain major challenges that are rooted in the dominant mentality towards women. Continuing to challenge domestic violence as a clear violation of human rights, educating its population about discrimination against women, and strictly enforcing punishments for offenders is fundamental in protecting the abused. Such education can be achieved by granting greater access to women’s rights organizations in universities, schools, and various local meetings throughout the country. As the monitoring and pressure exerted by various international organizations has proved to be successful in advancing their cause, women’s rights activists should continue to partner with the international community to keep Turkey’s practices for women on the international radar.

Conclusion

Turkey has experienced remarkable growth in its economy in the recent decades and is continuing to garner attention for its political role in the changing circumstances in the Middle East and Europe.  However, Turkey’s human rights records have not impressed the international community, including the Council of Europe and the European Union, both of which demands high standards of human rights for its member states. Turkey finds herself in a potential position of leadership and must take action to demonstrate its commitment to democracy and the human rights norms that it has declared itself committed to. Turkey possesses the political tools, the support of the international community, and the economic resources to effect necessary change.

Works Cited

Erselcan, Feray, Faruk Kocacik, and Aziz Kutlar. “Domestic Violence Against Women: a Field Study in Turkey” The Social Science Journal 44.4 (2007): 698-720. Print.

“Female Activists Make History with New Law to Protect Women.” Hurriyet Daily News on the Web 10 March 2012. 14 May 2012. <http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/female-activists-make-history-with-new-law-to-protect-women.aspx?pageID=238&nID=15649&NewsCatID=339&gt;.

Hajjar, Lisa. “Religion, State Power, and Domestic Violence in Muslim Societies: a Framework for Comparative Analysis.” Law & Social Inquiry 29.1 (2004): 1-38. Print.

“He Loves You, He Beats You: Family Violence in Turkey and Access to Protection.” Human Rights Watch (2011): 1-57. Print.

“Turkey: Adopt Strong Domestic Violence Law.” Human Rights Watch News on the Web 7 March 2012. 14 May 2012. < http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/03/07/turkey-adopt-strong-domestic-violence-law&gt;.

Opuz v. Turkey, Application no. 33401/02, Council of Europe: European Court of Human Rights, 9 June 2009.

Image by Jikatu

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