Women in Turkey: The Numbers Are Stacked Against Them

June 20, 2011

Journalist Ruhat Mengi speaks as women demonstrate outside the Turkish parliament to protest the rape and killing of children and women in Turkey. © Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

It is, no doubt, a positive sign that the number of women in the Turkish parliament has increased after the recent election.  That said, women still only hold 14% of the seats in parliament.

Other numbers  are even more troubling.  Of the five million or so Turkish citizens who are illiterate, four million are women.  More shocking still is the extent to which Turkish women are the target of violence.

According to a 2009 study, 42% of  Turkish women, aged 15 – 60, are subject to domestic violence at some point in their lives.  Almost half of these women suffer this violence in silence, never speaking to anyone about it.  Only 8% approach any government institution for support.

The stereotype in Turkey is that this violence is relegated to poor, rural women, particularly in the East of the country, and it is true that rates of violence are particularly high in these populations.  The reality, however, is that violence stretches across the country, to every region, and across all social strata.  Almost a third of the women in the highest economic brackets have also been subject to domestic violence.

Human Rights Watch, in a recent report, highlights both the level of violence that women have been subjected to and the shoddy state of government institutions in addressing women’s needs.  Law 4320 was established in 1998 to address the issue of domestic violence but, as Human Rights Watch’s researchers discovered, government officials seemed confused as to who was eligible for protection and how the law was to be implemented.

Even when the state has been willing to help women, it is often difficult to reach out.  Many women, particularly in the Kurdish East, are distrustful of state institutions and uncomfortable using Turkish.  Family courts are often unavailable or slow to act.  Police and gendarme are sometimes unsupportive, attempting to “reconcile” the families rather than protecting abused women.

Anna Louie Sussman, writing in The Atlantic, points out that Turkish police may be taking their cues from the top, where the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been “backsliding” in its commitment to women’s rights.  In women’s rights, as in much else relating to human rights,  the ruling AKP’s early commitment to reform has apparently waned.  Sussman notes that Erdoğan recently replaced the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs with the Ministry of Family and Social Policies.  The government’s commitment to women has quite literally been erased.

Erdoğan argued recently that women should have at least three children, and his agenda seems to be less “pro-women” than “pro-family.”  Moreover, there is something particularly chilling, in Erdoğan’s rhetoric.  As Sussman writes,

“[Erdoğan] recently said on television that he didn’t know whether a woman arrested in a violent protest was a “kız” (a young virgin) or a “kadın” (an older, sexually experienced woman).”

There is something in the tone here that harkens back to Turkey’s dark days of virginity tests while calling into question the fundamental capacity of women to participate in the public sphere.

This rhetoric sets the tone for the country, but the government’s “woman problem” is not limited to its language.  It is failing, at a fundamental level, to protect its own citizens and to uphold its commitments under international law. Turkey was among the first to sign a recent convention to protect women.

In this country of more than 70 million people, with the sixteenth largest economy in the world, there are only 65 women’s shelters, many of them woefully underfunded.  Amnesty has lobbied for years for the Turkish government to improve this standard, but to little avail.  It is time for Turkey to protect all of its citizens.