Turkish women walking in the park
Women in Beyoglu, a district on the European side of Istanbul

Credit: Alina Lehtinen

ISTANBUL, Turkey (WOMENSENEWS)–When the government in Ankara replaced the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs with the Ministry of Family and Social Policies a year ago, women’s rights activists saw the clock turning backward.

This, after all, was the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who in 2010 told a gathering of Turkish women’s organizations in Istanbul’s Dolmabahce Palace that he doesn’t believe in equality between the sexes.

But the new ministry won over some skeptics about a year ago, when it began a better system for documenting cases of domestic violence. In the past, police and prosecutors lumped these attacks together with ordinary crimes in a way that hindered tracking. Now they have a separate category and domestic violence figures have risen sharply.

The ministry misfired more recently with its high-profile “Panic Button” project, which critics here say glosses over the country’s deep problem with domestic violence.

The project launched in August in the provinces of Bursa and Adana. It provides women with devices hidden in watches and pieces of jewelry that can be pressed to connect to a call-center system in case of an emergency or attack.

Selime Buyukgoze, a volunteer at Mor Cati, a women’s shelter foundation based in Istanbul, says panic buttons won’t do much good when abused women have so little sense of social protection.

“The whole system has to be changed in Turkey,” she says.

When women report domestic violence, Buyukgoze says, they are widely considered guilty “in the eyes of family, society, at police stations and in court.”

Sent Back Home

Many times, women’s safety advocates say, women suffering abuse are sent back home to their husbands after filing complaints at the local police stations.

Sentences for perpetrators of domestic violence are often short and ineffective, affording little protection to their victims. Instead of implementing and enforcing laws, local police often shrink from criminal investigations of men accused of violence and push abused women to reconcile with their abusers, found a 2011 report by Human Rights Watch, “He Loves You, He Beats You.” The problems, report authors found, were particularly acute for unmarried and divorced women.

Aylin Nazliaka, a female member of parliament from the opposition Republican People’s Party, says that even though the panic button project might show the right impulse, she doubts it can work in Turkey without a more underlying transformation of the society.

Thirty-two percent of women in Turkey have experienced domestic violence, according to a nationwide survey in 2009. In the United States, the figure is around 22 to 25 percent.

Turkey, a country of nearly 80 million people that is often touted as a leader of Middle East modernity, has only 84 women’s shelters, according to the Minister of Environment and Urbanism. In the United States, which has a population of over 314 million people, the figure was more than 1,600 in 2005.

‘Nothing I Can Do’

A female family doctor, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said in a recent phone interview that most of her patients are victims of domestic violence. She gets most of the domestic violence cases because she is the only female doctor working at her clinic.

“Some are beaten badly and regularly. There is nothing I can do for the victims except give them some pain medication and treat their wounds,” she says.

The doctor says the women are frequently afraid to seek help at a shelter. “Often the women feel like they cannot go to the shelters because they are afraid that their husband or family members will kill them if they leave.”

Victims of domestic violence, the doctor continued, rarely get any special attention. At the clinic where she works their injuries are treated like those of people suffering from accidents.

The doctor describes one of her patients, a woman who came into the clinic and who lives in an impoverished district on the European side of Istanbul. She was covered with severe burns. “My husband did this,” she told the doctor.

She had gone to the police and reported her husband’s abuse and he was sent to jail for a short time. As soon as he was released he got his revenge by attacking her. Now she has nowhere to go, no income or education. She is a prisoner in her own house.

Another of her domestic-violence patients is only 16 years old. “That’s a kind of very sad and true story,” the doctor says. “I believe we can find many cases like hers.”

Alina Lehtinen is a Finnish freelance journalist reporting on the Middle East from Istanbul, Turkey.

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