If you’ve been following the news or social media in the last month, you’ve undoubtedly heard of something called the Istanbul Convention. 

What is the “Istanbul Convention”?

Approved by the Council of European countries, the Istanbul Convention is the first legally binding international instrument that creates a comprehensive framework to protect women against any form of violence. More specifically, the treaty establishes a series of crimes characterized as violence against women; States should incorporate these into their criminal codes or other forms of legislation if they do not already exist in their legal systems. The offenses covered by the Convention are psychological violence, stalking, physical violence, sexual violence including rape, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, forced abortion, and forced sterilization, sexual harassment. The Convention also includes an article that targets honor crimes.

What happened?

On March 20th, 2021 – with the country’s economy in deepening crisis- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Turkey would withdraw from the Convention. The motive for the move seems to arise from religious and conservative groups – as reported by the pro-government newspaper “Daily Sabah” (“Daily Morning”) – accusing the Istanbul Convention of damaging family values, encouraging divorce, and favoring the acceptance of the LGBT + community in society. 

The Minister of Family Zehra Zümrüt Selçuk wrote that women’s rights are “already guaranteed” by internal legislation, especially by the Constitution. According to Selçuk, the Turkish system is “dynamic and strong enough” to implement new regulations, as needed.

The office of President Erdoğan has released a single statement denouncing the Convention as “the attempt by a group of people to normalize homosexuality, which is incompatible with the social and family values ​​of Turkey .” As for today, it is clear that Turkey’s position appears to be a step backwards regarding the protection of women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights. Erdogan’s decision and statements sparked civil rights activists’ anger and called for protests in many cities. The opposition claims that the withdrawal should have been debated in Parliament before the presidential decree. According to Gokçe Gokçen, vice president of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), abandoning the treaty means “keeping women as second-class citizens, and letting them be killed.”

Many sites were set up to sign petitions and donate to the cause, but the government shut down all of them. Censorship is also a real concern for news agencies and papers, as very little information was disseminated regarding the country’s exit from the Convention.

The world’s response

The European Union has made its protest heard, inviting Turkey to rethink. According to some observes, this was defined as a “flexible attitude” because it must be taken into account the strategic role of Turkey in managing migratory flows, but also the contradictions within the Union itself.

In the United States, President Joe Biden criticized Erdoğan’s decision in the name of the renewed commitment to civil rights, which has once again become a central element of the image and action of the United States. In the Turkish initiative, the United States also reads a signal with which Ankara emphasizes its specific role and identity in the global arena. The decision of March 20th, in fact, underlines that Turkey’s relationship with its allies in NATO, with its ups and downs, is complex and based on geopolitical convergences and divergences, and that it is not based on a sharing, even formal, of principles and values. 

Pina Picierno stated: “After years of repression of dissent, suppression of human rights, incarceration of students, intellectuals, philanthropists and members of NGOs, we think the time has come to make our voice heard with a strong, decisive, and clear protest in front of the Turkish embassy. The EU must have the courage to treat Erdogan for what he is: a free-killing dictator and a dangerous criminal“.

The need to move towards a unitary and compact policy to protect women and promote their empowerment, in today’s society, appears to be increasingly felt by the European Community, but now more than ever in Turkey. Decisions like the Turkish one don’t help the promotion of the collective progress towards a reality in which women can actually feel protected and fulfilled.

It appears necessary that Turkey rethinks its initiative in order to resume the common path with other European countries for the pursuit of important collective objectives, aimed at favoring women and giving them the right role and the best protection within various communities.

Data on violence against women in Turkey

Turkey currently recorded 300 femicides in the past year, and more than 170 cases have been identified as “suspicious” – the police have categorized them as suicides. In 2019, there were 477 murders and 440 in 2018. According to the World Health Organization, 38% of women are victims of domestic violence. The data has doubled since 2012.

What people had to say

The major protests took place in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir (Smyrna), on the west coast of Turkey, and were mainly attended by women, with the purple flags of the Turkish platform, “We will stop femicide“, shouting the phrase: “We are not scared, we are not afraid. We shall not obey“.

In addition to street protests, activists announced back in March, the start of a daily protest around 9 pm from balconies and windows of houses – often used in the past by the Turkish opposition – by beating pots and lids to circumvent restrictions on street demonstrations.

The Istanbul Convention saves lives, and its existence was fundamental to Turkish citizens, people were left heartbroken and embittered. Many important Turkish figures have spoken, like Azra Deniz Okyay, a well-known Turkish movie director –  said: “The atmosphere at the protests was as if somebody had entered in the middle of the night and stolen our breath, our voice, our right to live. We were all shaking, we were all so angry. It’s not possible to stay calm or discuss anything else. But this makes us feel much stronger. Even old women who don’t usually want to go out wanted to march. In these times, I think that feminism is the best thing to happen to Turkey. It gives me hope for the future of our society. But it’s not just Turkey. Many other countries, the UK, Europe, all have a long way to go to achieve women’s rights. We will fight for our rights. But we must never lose hope and courage.” Also, Merve Morkoç, artist – had something to say: “It’s really pathetic that this is the only and the best move that the government can do. That being said, they don’t care about family values or morals. Even when the convention was in place, the government didn’t implement it, as can be seen in the number of deaths.”

(“Ölmek istemiyoruz” – We don’t want to die)


Giulia Francesca Pressani

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