Turkey ranked 120th of 136 nations in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Gender Gap Index, down 15 places since 2006, while a 2011 UN report indicated domestic violence rates were almost twice those in the United States, and ten times higher than in some European countries, Turkish daily ‘Hurriyet’ reported recently.
Beaten, burned and threatened by her husband, Hayat has repeatedly turned to the Turkish authorities for help. But she still lives with the man who tells her she belongs either to him, or in her grave.
She says she has reason to be afraid. Last year, 13 women in Turkey were murdered by their partners whilst nominally under state protection, according to official figures.
Whenever Hayat reported abuse, either her husband was released by police after a few hours, or she was offered shelter which would have meant her children being taken away.
“Go speak to a hundred women, you’ll hear pretty much the same story. It’s like a pre-destined misery that we’re born to live through,” Hayat, the only name she gives so as to protect her identity, told Reuters.
Turkey, which aspires to join the European Union, has drafted new legislation to try to bring women’s rights in line with European standards. A law sent to Parliament just last month will toughen sentencing for sexual assault.
Officials say the number of shelters has doubled in the past three years and victim support centres have been set up, allowing women like Hayat to receive protection and remain with their children.
However, activists and lawyers say there are still not enough, and that an increasingly conservative and authoritarian political culture under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government, means progress is, at best, halting.
“There is a real concrete, open threat to our rights. They want to take them back from us, and we don’t want to give them back,” said Zelal Ayman, an activist with Istanbul-based Women for Women’s Rights (WWHR).
She points to Erdoğan’s strident views on everything from abortion to the number of children women should have, the sort of meddling in private life that may bolster his standing among his pious core supporters but which alienates a more Western-leaning, secularist strain of Turkish society.
In a 2010 speech, he said he did “not believe in the equality of men and women.” Two years later, he likened abortions to the killing of civilians in a military airstrike; activists say abortions all but stopped, since many healthworkers became too frightened to carry them out.
Turkey has prospered in more than a decade under Erdoğan, with Turks’ wealth tripling in nominal terms and the economy accelerating from a backwater to the world’s 17th largest.
But activists say civil rights have not kept pace. Last year’s human rights report for the U.S. State Department found that violence against women was widespread, despite attempts to beef up legislation and training programmes for officials.
“The government did not effectively or fully enforce these laws or protect victims, and victims often waited days or weeks to report incidents due to embarrassment or reprisals, hindering effective prosecution of assailants,” the report said.
Accurate statistics are hard to come by, with the nature of the crimes not always fully reported, but rights groups warn killings are on the rise. Anıt Sayaç, a website commemorating the victims of domestic violence, reported 229 deaths last year, almost double the level in 2011.
This year could hit a macabre new record, with 123 murders reported by July 11, the site indicated. Activists briefly occupied government buildings earlier this month in protest at a spate of killings reported in local newspapers.
Stories of battered women, sometimes accompanied by pictures of murder victims, are not uncommon in the Turkish media.
Elif Şafak, Turkey’s well-known female author, says such violence is a symptom of a society in which women are seen as possessions and aggression – from politics to altercations in the street – is a part of daily life.
She points to fist fights between MPs, deadly clashes last summer between police and anti-government demonstrators, or the kicking by one of Erdoğan’s aides of a protester earlier this year in the wake of a mining disaster as signs of how normalised violence has become in Turkish society.
“The ongoing political polarisation intensifies the aggressiveness and vice versa,” she said in an interview. “Erdoğan’s speeches deepen the ‘us versus them’ duality.”
She acknowledged patriarchal attitudes were nothing new even in the modern secular republic, forged from the ruins of an Ottoman theocracy in the 1920s by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who among other reforms promoted Western dress and women’s rights. It is a legacy some see as at risk.
“For us, motherhood is the highest position for a woman,” she told supporters at a political rally on July 19.
Yıldız Tokman from the Association for Monitoring Gender Equality says Erdoğan’s words have made abortions de facto illegal and women in Turkey less safe.
“Government officials act like small prime ministers, saying that a woman’s place is with her husband. I’m afraid of increasing conservatism. With conservatism, the first victim is always women,” she said.
The Turkish government strongly denies suggestions it is encroaching on women’s rights. One official said some women’s groups refused to work with the authorities to tackle domestic violence simply because they resent government oversight or disagree with its broader political ideology.
“It’s politics. Standing there and saying I’m not going to play is not always the right thing to do,” the official said on condition of anonymity, pointing to the establishment of nationwide anti-domestic violence programs.
According to government figures, the number of shelters for battered women has nearly doubled to 92 from 48 in 2011.
Activists note new legislation means only communities with more than 100,000 inhabitants are required to have a shelter, instead of half that figure previously, and many municipalities don’t provide the service, blaming a lack of funding.
The official said training was being rolled out for state employees, policemen and soldiers, while 14 new violence monitoring and prevention centers (SONIM) – one-stop shops providing health, judicial and psychological support for victims – have been established.
But for Hayat and women like her, trapped in abusive relationships, the promises of politicians – from stricter punishment to better care provision – means little if the attitudes they promote do not change in step.
“Higher penalties on paper will neither stop my husband nor anyone else’s husband. There is no implementation anyway,” she said. “If they’re not going to implement the laws they already have, why bother trying to make new ones?”