A viral campaign on Instagram meant to empower women has its recent roots in a bleak reality familiar to women who are victims of violence in Turkey.

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Women march in support of the Istanbul Convention on preventing violence against women, Istanbul, Turkey, 19 July 2020. (AP Photo/Omer Kuscu).

Women around the world have been nominating each other to post a black and white photo on Instagram, using the hashtag #challengeaccepted, to express female solidarity.

To some, the current trend, like many on social media, may seem breezy, vague or simply aesthetic. But it has its roots in a bleak reality that is familiar to too many women in a country that is a candidate to join the European Union — Turkey.

The Instagram movement took off after a 27-year-old Turkish woman, Pinar Gültekin, was brutally beaten and then strangled to death in July. Her ex-boyfriend has been arrested and charged with murder, having confessed to the killing, according to media reports.

Men’s violence against women is a leading cause of premature death for women globally, according to the UK organization Femicide Census. But the problem is especially severe in Turkey, which has the highest femicide rate among the 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

Turkey ranked 130 out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Index. According to the United Nations, 38% of Turkish women are victims of gender violence over their lifetimes, higher than the 25% for Europe. 

In Turkey, the number of women killed by partners or in “honor killings” — the murder of women and girls by family members who feel dishonored by the victim’s actions — has doubled in the past six years, from 237 in 2013 to 474 last year, according to the Turkish non-governmental organization We Will End Femicide.

Violence against women in Turkey on the rise.

The increase in the number of women killed by partners or family members has coincided with the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who assumed the post in 2014 after serving as prime minister for 11 years before that.

“You cannot bring women and men into equal positions,” Erdoğan said in 2014. “That is against nature because their nature is different.”

Erdoğan’s AKP party is considering pulling Turkey out of an international agreement, called the Instanbul Convention, designed to protect women, party officials have been quoted as saying.

 “The signing of the Istanbul Convention was really wrong,” AKP deputy chairperson Numan Kurtulmus was quoted by the Reporting Democracy not-for-profit network as saying in a TV interview in July.

International convention aims to protect women against violence.

Conservative critics of the convention, which was crafted in Istanbul in 2011, say it encourages violence by undermining family structures.

“Families are falling apart because of the Istanbul Convention,” Reporting Democracy quoted pro-AKP media columnist Abdurrahman Dilipak as saying. “Our young are not marrying and married couples are lining up to divorce.”

That view is contested by the Women and Democracy Association (KADEM), a Turkish women’s rights group. “The Istanbul Convention is the first international document that provides a detailed legal protection against all forms of violence against women,” KADEM said in a statement earlier this year.

Defenders of the pact say if Turkey withdrew, it would distance the country even more from the EU. This would really break Turkey away from the civilised world and the consequences may be very severe,” Gamze Tascier, a lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, recently told Reuters.

Turkey has been a candidate to join the EU since 1999, and negotiations for full membership started on 2005 before faltering in recent years as differences between the two — ranging from human rights to geopolitics — have deepened.

In the past, Turkey was a leader in the fight for women’s rights.

Until recent years, Turkey had protected women’s rights. In the 1930s, Turkish women won the right to vote and to run for public office — ahead of many developed countries in the West.

Those progressive steps were supported by many middle- and upper-class citizens in cities but did not enjoy the backing of more conservative Turks outside urban centers, according to Ömer Taşpınar of the U.S. think tank Brookings Institution.

Laws empowering women were confined to urban centers and embraced by the progressive and educated segments of society,” Taşpınar wrote earlier this year. “Eradicating outdated laws that discriminated against women is much easier than changing a deeply rooted patriarchal political culture.”

Critics of the government say authorities are apt to let abusers walk with relative impunity and reduced sentences.

“Men who wear neckties and suits during their court appearances get their sentences reduced so often that Turks have coined a phrase for the phenomenon: ‘tie reduction,’” Istanbul-based lawyer and journalist wrote in the New York Times newspaper earlier this year.

Can a phone app help curb violence against women in Turkey?

Despite its discomfort with the Istanbul Convention, the government created a phone app in 2018 called KADES — The Women Emergency Assistance Notification — that tracks men who have been reported as violent offenders and allows women to report abuse to police.

More than 30,000 women filed complaints of domestic violence over the app from early June to late July, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu was quoted as saying.

But opposition lawmaker Gamze Akkuş İlgezdi said only women with the means to own a smartphone could use the application, limiting its usefulness. “Meaning, the data not unveiled are much higher and reveal a more poignant issue,” she was quoted as saying.

This life-saving but little-known application has not been promoted in public spaces during the lockdown,” Burcu Karakaş, the Turkey correspondent for Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, wrote recently.

“Violence against women continues — and so too do the challenges faced by women in Turkey,” Karakaş said.

Three questions to consider:

  1. What event spurred the current Instagram movement, #challengeaccepted?
  2. What percentage of women in Turkey are victims of gender violence during their lifetimes, according to the United Nations?
  3. Do you think that campaigns on social media can help resolve human rights problems?
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Tendayi Chirawu is News Decoder’s Communications and School Engagement Manager. A citizen of Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia, she has a masters degree in Global Communication & Civil Society from the American University of Paris. She joined News Decoder in July and has experience working for non-profit and for-profit organizations in Africa, Asia and Europe. Chirawu is a published author and has written for international news publications.

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Human Rights Women's rights Hashtag campaign spotlights violence against women in Turkey