In the 12-hour period following Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, six women were killed. At least 28 women were killed in February 2021 alone, with further reports of 300 femicides and 171 more women found dead under suspicious circumstances in Turkey last year.
Despite the government stressing the extensive capabilities of their existing legislation, the decision to withdraw was met with global backlash, forcing the international community to question the fundamental safety of the lives of Turkish women. It appears Turkey has declared war on their female population.
Named after Turkey’s largest city, the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence is more commonly known as the Istanbul Convention. In 2012, Turkey became the first country to sign the Convention followed by 44 other countries from 2013 to 2019, including the UK in 2012. Established to “create a comprehensive legal framework and approach to combat violence against women”, it classifies violence against women as a violation of human rights.
The treaty establishes violence against women to include: psychological violence, stalking, physical violence, sexual violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, forced abortion, and forced sterilisation.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a presidential decree to withdraw Turkey from the international treaty on 20th March 2021. The decision was announced without debates in Parliament, prompting protests surrounding undemocratic processes and threat to the livelihoods of Turkish women.
In a statement by the Directorate of Communications, Erdogan presented his belief that the Convention had been “hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalize homosexuality – which is incompatible with Türkiye’s social and family values”, going on to say the decision “by no means denotes that Turkey compromises the protection of women”. In a separate statement, the presidency’s head of communications Fahrettin Altun expressed the capabilities of their existing legislation, stating they had already “strengthened [their] legal infrastructure in terms of ‘combating violence against women’”.
Looking to the figures, it appears this is not the case. As previously mentioned, 300 femicides were reported in Turkey in 2020, with speculation regarding hundreds of further unreported cases. With the presence of a singular phone helpline for female victims of violence, Turkey has the capacity to house 3,482 women in their 145 shelters. A simple calculation proves this means they can only house 0.02% of the 40% of Turkish women who have experienced domestic violence.
Women poured onto the streets of Turkish cities to demonstrate against Erdogan’s decision with slogans saying: “Istanbul Convention saves lives” and “We don’t accept one man’s decision”. It is thought the current customs and traditions of Turkey delegate women as second-class citizens, with the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović calling for authorities to “reconsider the decision to withdraw from the Convention” to “show Turkey’s continued and genuine commitment to protecting women from violence”.
However, while the UK’s support systems for victims of domestic violence and defences against the violation of human rights may seem a world away from Turkey’s withdrawal from the Convention, there is more here than meets the eye.
Although the UK became one of the 45 countries to sign the Istanbul Convention in 2012, almost nine years later they are yet to ratify it, meaning the country’s laws do not meet the treaty’s standards. Following the questioning of this seemingly non-committal status, the Home Office stated: “in most respects, the UK already complies with or goes further than the Convention requires”.
However, Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins could not give the House of Lords peers who termed the delay in ratifying the convention as “troubling” any reassurance or timeline as to when this may be completed. Instead, Atkins points to areas which are meant to be addressed through legislation in the coming months, but could be pushed back until 2022 or 2023.
Currently, the UK does not meet Articles 44, 59 and 4(3) of the Istanbul Convention. Article 44 lays out a requirement for extra-territorial jurisdiction to apply to British citizens who commit crimes against women while abroad. This has been marked “in progress towards compliance” due to the ongoing debates surrounding the outstanding Domestic Abuse Bill which would cover such circumstances.
Articles 59 and 4(3), however, are marked as “under review” with the two stipulations of the Istanbul Convention requiring that services and support must not discriminate on the basis of residency or immigration status. The Support for Migrant Victims Scheme is a short-term remedy to the ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ status held by people on spousal or fiancé visas who are not protected by the Domestic Abuse Bill.
Finally, the UK are yet to criminalise psychological violence in Northern Ireland (NI). Long-awaited after the Northern Ireland Assembly’s collapse in 2017, coercive control, including non-violent intimidation and psychological abuse, is due to become an offence in NI for the first time. NI is also the only place in the UK which does not have anti-stalking laws. Justice minister Naomi Long introduced legislation in February, but it is unlikely the bill will make it into law by 2022.
Turkey’s withdrawal from the treaty has raised international fears as to the livelihoods of Turkish women and highlighted the UK’s low level of progress towards ratifying the Istanbul Convention, with the fourth progress report published in October 2020 marking the areas they are yet to ratify as “in progress towards compliance” or simply “under review”.
Almost nine years after they initially signed the treaty, it seems as if the intentions of the UK government in protecting the rights of women are, at best, painstakingly slow, and, at worst, simply performative.