Women’s shelters in Turkey: “Laws are rendered inoperative by the state”
Women in Turkey need more shelters and hosting facilities so that those without financial means or support networks may find a way out of the violence they are exposed to. However, merely increasing the number of the shelters is not enough. And the increasing violations by public officials are not unrelated to the government’s decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention.
“The greatest obstacle to the effectiveness of the mechanisms developed for preventing male violence against women is the public officials neglecting their duties by not enforcing the laws and regulations,” says the Purple Roof Women’s Shelter Foundation (Mor Çatı), one of the oldest and most prominent organizations dedicated to providing shelter for female victims of violence in Turkey.
In a report published in January 2021, the foundation brings together many cases of malpractices by law enforcement officers in processing requests for a shelter, accusing them of “putting women’s lives at risk, either intentionally or due to ignorance”.
“Laws are rendered inoperative by the state,” the report concludes.
As a matter of fact, laws to prevent violence against women do exist. Law no 6284 to Protect Family and Prevent Violence against Women (2012), widely recognized as one of the major accomplishments of the women’s movement in Turkey and passed with the aim of incorporating the Istanbul Convention into domestic law, requires that women are given adequate means of protection such as shelters, restraining orders on perpetrators and police escort.
The problem is that the law is not always implemented in practice, women’s rights advocates say, even less so after the Turkish government’s decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention.
This means that women trying to escape violence often find themselves having to fight against a resistance in public institutions as well.
On top of that, Covid 19 emergency seems to have accentuated the many difficulties women have to deal with in their endeavour to escape violence and struggle against the institutions. Purple Roof Foundation accuses the public institutions of “using the pandemic as an excuse” as many women are refused a place in shelters.
145 shelters with a capacity of 3,482
That the shelter capacities are far below requirements is an oft-repeated complaint among rights activists, confirmed by official figures. According to the data provided by the Presidency’s Communications Center (Cimer) there are only 145 women’s shelters in Turkey, 110 of which are run by the Ministry of Family, Labor and Social Services; 32 by municipalities; 2 by the Directorate General of Migration Management and 1 by an NGO (Purple Roof).
The total capacity of these shelters amount to 3,482 people — this in a country of about 84 million, where more than 3000 femicides were recorded in the last 10 years. A comparison that activists frequently make is one with Sweden, a country of 10 million people that has 161 shelters.
Activists call for more facilities to host women in need of a shelter so that those without financial means or support networks may find a way out of the violence they are exposed to. However, merely increasing the number of the shelters is not enough. Many of the existing facilities are in need of more funding, more employees, and a more feminist and less hierarchical operational structure, one that could help in empowering women to make decisions for their own lives.
The total capacity of shelters amount to 3,482 people- this in a country of about 84 million, where more than 3000 femicides were recorded in the last 10 years
“The experiences of women that have stayed in state shelters show that practices in these facilities are prevalently far from empowering women. Not only are women not given the support they need to be able to rebuild their lives, but they are also made to live in prison-like conditions for security reasons,” Purple Roof Women’s Shelter Foundation says in its January 2021 report.
These practices in the state institutions are said to include being scolded by employees, not having the freedom to go out or communicate by phone, not being able to take their sons over the age of 12 with them, among others.
And the pandemic has further worsened the women’s predicament. Women for Women’s Human Rights – New Ways (WWHR) and Purple Roof Women’s Shelter Foundation’s joint declaration details how already existing problems have been exacerbated during the pandemic:
“Despite the legally binding texts (approved by the state), we have been observing and reporting for a long time that in practice there are many obstacles to preventing violence against women. And during the pandemic we’ve observed significant disruptions in the mechanisms of combating violence against women. Coronavirus is being cited as the reason why women cannot access their rights…”
The most frequently observed problem is the negligence of law enforcement officers responsible for enforcing the relevant law (6284), the declaration continues. “When women are exposed to violence, they are not informed about their rights by law enforcement, or they are wrongly or incompletely informed, they are deterred from pursuing their complaints, they are forced to show evidence even though it is stated otherwise in the law, they are urged to reconcile with the perpetrator even though it is a crime, and they are kept in the police station for hours without being able to file their complaints.”
Among the serious violations of women’s rights cited in are “arbitrary rejections of women’s applications to shelters that are critical for their safety”, “women not being allowed to leave the shelters”, “confiscation of their phones”, “security breaches due to public officials sharing the addresses of the shelters, whose locations should be confidential”.
Withdrawal from Istanbul Convention
These violations by public officials are not unrelated to recent political controversies and the government’s decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. Women’s Solidarity Foundation (KADAV) denounced the consequences of this appalling decision in an October 2021 report:
“What women report of their personal experiences after the abolition of the (Istanbul) Convention shows that one of the places that they face the most problems is the law enforcement units they contact after being subjected to violence.”
KADAV mentions an increase in the frequency of problems women face when they want to report violence. Among these problems are reports of law enforcement officers who fail to register women’s complaints and take no action under the false pretext that they are not authorized or in charge. Migrant women or those who do not speak Turkish are reported to face even more hardships as they are often not given the chance to have an interpreter when they want to file a complaint.
And all this despite the existence of the much-revered law no 6284, meticulously prepared with the participation and persistent efforts by women’s rights advocates. Laws to prevent violence against women do exist but in practice they “are rendered inoperative” by public institutions as Purple Roof says.
Among the serious violations of women’s rights in shelters are: “arbitrary rejections of women’s applications to shelters”, “not being allowed to leave the shelters”, “confiscation of their phones”, “security breaches due to public officials sharing the addresses of the shelters, whose locations should be confidential”
Erdoğan’s “peace commissions” plan draws ire
Even more alarmingly, there are also signs of possible attempts at changing the laws that albeit with much toil constitute a legal assurance for women.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in a speech in September 2021, announced plans to institute “peace commissions” in every province. Although he didn’t give much of a detail as to what exactly these commissions will be in charge of, after many years under his governance it’s not that difficult for rights activists to read his mind.
Women’s organizations are worried that these commissions could be used as a means of avoiding divorces instead of protecting women from violence, acting as a mediator to urge women to reconcile with their violent husbands, for example.
The Women’s Platform for Equality of Turkey (EŞİK), a formation bringing together hundreds of women’s and LGBTQ+ organizations, warns the “peace commissions” project could prove to be very risky both for the secular state of law and for the fight on violence against women.
EŞİK has launched a campaign called “Don’t touch the laws, apply them” in October, saying: “We are the ones that have made these laws, we’ve been holding our breaths before every judicial reform package, and we are ready to fight all together against new threats.”