The Domino Effect of Normalizing Violence Against Women: Why Turkey’s Withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention Has Become the Norm Rather Than the Exception

The Domino Effect of Normalizing Violence Against Women: Why Turkey’s Withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention Has Become the Norm Rather Than the Exception

Turkey’s decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention has been highly criticized by the European Union and human rights advocates. However, Turkey is not the first and most likely not the last country to opt out of the Convention on preventing and combating gender-based violence. Whereas much of the focus has been on Erdogan’s political motivations behind the decision, the issue of violence against women in Central and Eastern Europe in relation to the Istanbul Convention remains in the shadows and requires further attention.

Turkey’s Decision is neither a Surprise nor an Isolated Act

On 20 March 2021, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Turkey’s decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. In 2011, Turkey was the first country to sign the Convention named after its largest city and formally known as the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

Erdogan’s decision to withdraw from the Convention was met with serious criticism from women’s rights advocates, political leaders and the general public. The withdrawal came at a time when Turkey was gradually achieving progress towards improving its political, economic and trade relations with the EU. However, abandoning a legal instrument which protects human rights in the country was not well-received by political leaders in Brussels.

The Council of Europe’s Secretary General, Marija Pejčinović Burić, called the withdrawal “devastating”, and Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, stated that Turkey was going back to the Middle Ages. The decision, however, did not come as a surprise. The Istanbul Convention has previously provoked heated debates in countries in Central and Eastern Europe, with Bulgaria, the Czech Republic  Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia and Slovakia being among the countries which refused to ratify the legally binding document.

Never-Ending Controversies

The President of Turkey defended the withdrawal with the argument that the treaty promotes homosexuality and thus threatens Turkish family values, social norms and long-standing traditions. The same line of reasoning has been used by the governments of Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovakia. Resistance to the treaty in these countries emerges from often overlooked social, cultural and religious aspects. Conservatives argue that the Convention undermines traditional family structures and tries to impose “Western” ideologies by introducing third gender and promoting LGBTQ+ rights.

This never-ending controversy comes from the Convention’s phrasing of the term “gender” as socially determined roles and behaviours which are considered appropriate for men and women by a given society. The Convention makes no reference to third gender or LGBTQ+ rights. Instead, it introduces a legal framework of domestic violence as a gender-based issue, which addresses the problem in the context of gender power relations. Simply put, the Istanbul Convention criminalizes violence against women for the very fact that they are women.

To illustrate, shortly after ratifying the Convention, the government of France introduced a new legislation putting gender equality as a precondition for the elimination of gender-based violence. In 2019, the country scored 100 out of 100 on the World Bank’s index on equal rights for men and women.

This gendered understanding of violence is particularly important for the region of Central and Eastern Europe, since women are still struggling to push back against patriarchal norms and male dominance, both within the family and in the workplace. 

Why Ditching the Convention Could Lead to the Normalization of Violence?

The Istanbul Convention is the first binding legal instrument created to protect the rights of women against violence, marital rape and genital mutilation. This is an important step forward for the ratified states as it requires them to adapt the clauses of the treaty to their national legislations.

The high rates of intimate partner violence (IPV) in Central and Eastern Europe are further aggravated by the lack of social services, ineffective legislation and policies, and inadequate data on cases of violence. The Convention aims to address these issues through a wide range of mechanisms. For instance, official statistics on gender-based violence in Turkey are missing, with women’s rights groups reporting some 409 women killed in 2020 due to IPV. The Istanbul Convention requires governments to collect data.

Another step forward is the provision of a 24/7 telephone helpline, shelters for protection, as well as legal and psychological counselling. A study conducted by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe found that only 7% of women in the region reported domestic violence to the police. The majority of women admitted that they do not know what to do if they experience violence and they are unaware of shelters or local services offering assistance. As a matter of fact, Bulgaria is one of the few European countries with no 24/7 telephone helpline for victims of gender-based violence.

The independent expert committee, called the Grevio Mechanism, and overseen by the European Court of Human Rights, has been established by the Convention to monitor the legal obligations and implementation of the measures by its member states. This in turn will require newly ratified states to undertake significant social, legal and political changes and accept legal responsibility in cases where they fail to do so. Optimistic as this may sound, the domino effect of withdrawal, amplified by political discourse of hostility, might end up being the preferred loophole rather than mobilizing human, financial and legal resources to combat violence against women.

COVID-19 and IPV

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased intimate partner violence, both in the EU Member States and globally. The prolonged lockdown measures have put victims in a vulnerable position vis-à-vis their perpetrators, thus exacerbating further the issue of underreported violence against women. Law enforcement authorities in Bulgaria have registered more than 4000 cases of domestic violence for the period between March and May 2020. Still, official numbers are impossible to estimate due to the lack of public data.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, women will remain victims of stress and economic hardship caused by the restrictions. Criminologists explain this process with the so-called strain theory of interpersonal violence. According to the theory, unemployment and economic uncertainty among men provoke anger which in turn transforms into violent behaviour in the family. A sociological survey has shown that women who earn less are at a lower risk of experiencing IPV than women who out-earn their spouse.

Outlook: Learned Helplessness Will Continue

Learned helplessness occurs when a person is experiencing a stressful situation or violence for a prolonged period of time. After a while, they come to believe that the situation cannot be changed, even if an opportunity to do so arises. This makes gender-based violence in Central and Eastern Europe a socially embedded problem, as many female victims accept IPV as a norm within the family.

One third of women in Romania and Bulgaria believe domestic violence is a private matter and should be resolved within the family. 58% of survey respondents in the Czech Republic believe rape could be justified by the behaviour of the victim.

Turkey’s decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention may motivate other countries in the region to follow a similar path. Just a few days after Erdogan announced his move, the Polish Parliament drafted a bill requesting the withdrawal of Poland from the Convention. If approved, Poland will very likely be the next country sliding towards the domino effect of normalizing violence against women by replacing the treaty with inherently flawed and largely inadequate domestic policies which fail to protect victims and allow abusers to get away with the offence.  

Even though the treaty could benefit from future improvements, at least at present, it holds perpetrators accountable to a legal standard and takes violence against women outside of the family sphere. For many, as long as violence remains a private matter, love will continue to hurt.



Categories: Europe, Politics

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