By Dilek Karal
Turkish society has long considered domestic violence to be a family matter. Female activists of the early 1980s were the first to call on authorities to make legal reforms to protect women.
Using the motto “Private is political,” women’s organizations shed light on the roots of domestic violence. For these activists, violence against women was not a phenomenon that resulted only from cultural backwardness or religious sentiments but has its very roots in social policies and the overall distribution of gender roles in society. In this context, violence against women is one of the many faces of discrimination against women in social life. Thus, many believed that providing measures to protect women from violence in Turkey by way of social development should go hand-in-hand with legal reforms.
Law No. 4320 on the Protection of the Family, adopted in 1998, provided an array of measures for the protection of women and children from domestic violence. However, major deficiencies in the law emerged, such as the exclusive protection of women who are legally married and a lack of sanctions through which legal authorities could protect women.
The increasing media awareness of women murdered by their partners in recent years has caused public outcry and become a major issue for women’s rights organizations. Greater numbers of claims of violence against women have made elimination of the problem a top priority on the agenda of newly appointed Family and Social Policy Minister Fatma Şahin.
In an indication of a major shift in attitude, last November, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Turkey, in a historic move, became the first country to ratify the Council of Europe (CoE) Convention on “preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.” Similarly, a new law passed on March 8 for the protection of women against violence represents another crucial step in the creation of measures to protect women from violence in Turkey. The new law includes all women, regardless of marital status, and expands the rights of the victim.
The new law aims to provide better protection for women and enhanced support for victims. The legislation widens the scope of protection, not only by penalizing perpetrators more severely, but by also putting into place proactive measures to combat the victimization of women by their partners. A special budget has also been allotted for the Ministry of Family and Social Policy for further reforms.
Punitive sanctions for perpetrators have been intensified. For instance, if one violates a protection order, which orders an abuser to stop threatening, stalking or physically assaulting a victim, then as the first step, he will be jailed for three days. Although it has taken a long time to come to the point of sending violators of protection orders to jail, the process is now faster because if a family court or prosecutor is unavailable, police officers have the authority to issue a protection order, thereby allowing the protection to begin the very moment the victim needs it. This will likely have a deterrent effect on potential abusers.
Under the new law, if a family court or prosecutor is unavailable, police officers have the authority to issue a protection order, thereby allowing the protection to begin the very moment the victim needs it.
In case of a domestic violence claim, the man in question will be kept out of the shared home. As a significant reform, family courts can classify shared houses as “family houses” and inform the land registration office as well. In this case, the perpetrator will not be able to sell the property against the woman’s will or to relocate her. Relocation is a decision left up to the woman.
Last but not least, under the new law, the Ministry of Family and Social Policy has been allotted a budget that can be used to assist victims. Furthermore, abused women will receive an allowance or, if they work, two months of childcare paid by the ministry.
The pros aside, the new law has caused a major debate amongst women’s rights organizations that claim the law protects the family rather than the individual. Although many activists and the minister herself supported the name “Law on Preventing Violence Against Women and Individuals in the Family,” the final name ratified by Parliament is “Law on the Protection of the Family and the Prevention of Violence Against Women.” For many, this name change shows conservatism and signals that the government is prioritizing the protection of the family over the protection of women.
The second criticism frequently voiced concerns over the implementation of certain aspects of the law. In the new law, “gender equality monitoring centers,” under the administration of police and prosecutors, will be established to provide protection for women 24 hours a day. Apart from that, the significant initiative given to police for the protection of women comes with extensive responsibilities and a need for the training of officers and social workers who will provide the services offered by these centers. At this point, police officers cannot do much to help victims and usually send them back to their homes due to a lack of women’s shelters. Activist groups are rightfully concerned about the implementation of the law and how gender equality monitoring centers will actually be established.
Although the new law on combating domestic violence lacks some vital details of which the problematic aspects will become more obvious in the future, it still represents tremendous reform in the protection of women’s rights in Turkey. In this sense, I believe the law is not only a significant milestone for women’s empowerment but also shows a transformation in the mindset of Turkish politicians. What happens in the family does not stay in the family anymore.
USAK Center for Social Studies
This article was previously published in Todays Zaman Daily.