By Jessica Sutton.
Instagram and Facebook have been flooded with black and white photographs with the hashtag #ChallengeAccepted, in memory of Pinar Gültekin, a young woman allegedly brutally killed by her ex-boyfriend in Turkey last week. #ChallengeAccepted has been co-opted by some American and British influencers without knowing the origin of the trend, which is to draw attention to the crisis of femicides in Turkey.
42% of Turkish women between the ages of 15 and 60 have experienced physical or sexual violence from a partner. 430 women were killed in Turkey in 2019. Each day, more women appear on the news or in newspapers in black and white photographs, with horrible details of how their lives have been ended. Just like Ms Gültekin, who was beaten, strangled, set on fire, and hidden in concrete, these women are suffering intense and fatal violence while Turkey’s leaders look on in indifference.
These horrific rates of femicide are even more shocking considering the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence was signed in Turkey’s capital. The Istanbul Convention is a regional treaty created by the Council of Europe which addresses violence against women and particularly domestic violence. The Istanbul Convention has been ratified by 47 countries, and condemns “all forms of violence against women and domestic violence.” However, conservative groups in Turkey continue to lobby the Government to withdraw from the treaty, suggesting it attacks family values. Feminist groups fear that Turkey may be on its way to withdrawing from the treaty, leaving women without even the semblance of protection against violence under international law.
And it is not only Turkey which is failing when it comes to the promises of the Istanbul Convention. Current Justice Minister of Poland, Zbigniew Ziobro, has decided that Poland will withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, leaving women in Poland with little formal protection from violence under international law. Ziobro claims that the Convention’s requirements regarding teaching gender from a sociological perspective in schools are incompatible with Poland’s core beliefs. Ziobro has alleged that the Convention is a “feminist creation aimed at justifying gay ideology”. This withdrawal is a potent reminder of the danger posed to women and minorities by homophobia and misogyny in upper leadership.
Why is the Istanbul Convention Important?
Regional treaties addressing violence against women such as the Istanbul Convention and the Maputo Protocol to the African Charter have become more common as understandings around gender-based violence have grown. The Istanbul Convention broadly addresses gender-based violence prevention, victim support, and combats impunity of perpetrators. Each country has obligations under the treaty to promote equality, prosecute perpetrators, facilitate victim compensation, and protect and support victims. The Convention recognises that domestic violence disproportionately affects women, with male victims also being acknowledged. Domestic violence is defined widely as including all acts of physical, sexual, psychological, or economic violence occurring within the family, the domestic unit, or between former or current partners under Article 3.
The international community has turned to these regional treaties due to the rising crisis of gender-based violence, and also to fill gaps left by the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). CEDAW was the first United Nations women’s rights treaty, entering into force in 1981, and does not explicitly mention violence against women. This means that the Istanbul Convention is one of very few binding instruments which require countries to protect women against violence, making the actions of Poland and Turkey all the more concerning.
Although conservative leaders allege the Istanbul Convention attacks traditional values and the family unit, this is patently not true. All the Convention requires, is that traditions and family values should not excuse violence against women. The Convention makes no explicit mention of LGBT rights, except for a general commitment to non-discrimination. Male victims are included in many of the provisions, and each country is given considerable latitude to implement the education requirements in schools. Schools should cover “equality between women and men, non-stereotyped gender roles, mutual respect, non-violent conflict resolution in interpersonal relationships, gender-based violence against women and the right to personal integrity” in their curriculum. It is therefore clear that concerns cited by Turkey and Poland are largely baseless. The logical inference is that these countries do not wish to accord women the right to be free from violence, and seek to escape their current obligations towards their female citizens.
A Dangerous Pattern
The actions of Turkey and Poland reflect a wider issue: that womens rights are marginalized in international law. Violence against women being hidden from the public eye partly explains why international law largely did not provide protections for women until the 1980s. When it came to domestic violence specifically, it was often regarded by international law scholars as lacking the “substance and gravitas” of real human rights violations. This reinforces how resistant society has been to according women full human rights, and that violations predominately impacting women have been trivialised by experts.
United Nations former Special Rapporteur Radhika Coomaraswamy, slammed this attitude as representing an “ideological resistance to human rights for women”. Women’s rights are separated from human rights, with human rights being the domain of international law, and women’s rights being a lesser issue left to individual countries to regulate. Of course, gender-based violence in fact violates a host of human rights, including the right to life and the right to not suffer torture. The international framework has slowly recognised this, but the participation of countries in women’s rights treaties is as important as ever.
These actions show a worrying pattern of blatant disregard for the lives and human rights of women. Countries must be even more vigilant about protecting women’s rights during the COVID-19 pandemic, as domestic violence and femicides spike under pandemic lockdowns. Attacking the Convention, or leaving it altogether, cannot be a blameless act in the context of the gender-based violence crisis. This behaviour is irresponsible at best, and at worst is a deliberate blow to women’s rights, aimed at putting women in their place by exposing them to violence.
Pinar Gültekin was 27 years old.
She wanted to be a leader one day, a governor or a mayor, to make real change in her country.
Her name is now a rallying cry for feminists fighting against femicide.
 Radhika Coomaraswamy “Women, Ethnicity and the Discourse of Rights” in Rebecca J Cook (ed) Human Rights of Women: National and International Perspectives (University of Pennsylvania Press, Pennsylvania, 1994) 39 at 40.