Several thousand people demonstrated in Turkey on Saturday to call on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to reverse his decision to abandon a treaty on combating violence against women, which has brought outrage across Europe.
“Annul your decision, apply the treaty!” chanted thousands of women and men gathered in Istanbul”s Kadiköy district. The demonstrators held up portraits of murdered women and placards, including one which read: “It’s the women who will win this war”.
“I’m fed up with this patriarchal state. I’m fed up with not feeling safe. Enough!” Banu, one of the demonstrators, told AFP. Other, smaller rallies were also reportedly held in Ankara and Izmir.
In a decree published overnight from Friday to Saturday, Erdogan announced his country’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, the first international treaty to set legally binding standards in some 30 countries to prevent gender-based violence.
This decision, taken even though the number of women killed in Turkey has been on the rise for a decade, has aroused the anger of women’s rights organisations and criticism from the European Union.
Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention is “devastating news” and “compromises the protection of women” in the country, said the Council of Europe. Turkey is a member of the pan-European organisation and signed the treaty under its auspices in 2011.
This “sends a bad signal to Europe, but especially to Turkish women,” said the German Foreign Ministry. “This decline in rights is worrying,” added France’s Europe minister, Clément Beaune.
Erdogan first spoke of abandoning the Istanbul Convention last year, in an attempt to rally his conservative electorate in the face of growing economic difficulties.
Conservative and Islamist groups called on him to quit the treaty which, they say, harms “traditional” family values by defending gender equality and “favours” the LGBT community by prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.
But many women fear that abandoning the treaty will open the floodgates for violence that is already endemic.
“I don’t want to die. In 2017, I lost a childhood friend (…) killed by her ex-boyfriend. Five months ago, a friend’s mother was killed by her ex,” said one of the demonstrators in Istanbul, Okyanus Curebal. “I am as angry now as I was in those days. Long live the Istanbul Convention!”
The withdrawal from the treaty also sowed consternation among the political opposition.
Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, one of Erdogan’s main rivals, accused the president of “trampling on the struggle that women have been waging for years”.
Faced with the avalanche of criticism, the government sought to reassure. “Our institutions and our security forces will continue to fight against domestic violence and violence against women,” said Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu.
In early March, the country was shaken by the publication of a video showing a man hitting his ex-wife on the ground in the middle of the street, in front of their daughter.
The attacker was arrested and President Erdogan announced the creation of a parliamentary commission to take stock of the legislation in order to better fight against violence.
Despite these statements, women’s rights groups accuse the government of not enforcing existing laws with sufficient force, they say encouraging a feeling of impunity.