Will the Reinstatement of the Death Penalty in Turkey Prevent Violence Against Women?

02/24/2015 05:43 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015
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Since February 11, 2015, Turkey has been shaken by the brutal killing of a 20-year-old university student, Özgecan Aslan, who was allegedly killed after resisting rape. Her death became a rallying cause for activists campaigning to end violence against women in Turkey. Mass demonstrations took place to protest violence against women. Women nationwide have worn black in condemnation of the murder. Not only women but also Turkish men wearing skirts demonstrated in Istanbul to support women's rights in her memory. The slaying of Özgecan revealed the fact that violence against women has increased in recent years in Turkey. Human rights monitor Bianet says 281 women murdered in 2014. The number of murder increased 31 percent in comparison to the previous year. Nine percent of these women had asked for protection from the state. What went wrong and why has violence against women increased in Turkey?

Almost a decade ago, Turkey became one of the pioneer countries to launch several initiatives for women's rights in the Broader Middle East and North Africa region. The country actively assumed a role in Western projects and hosted several conferences related to women's rights. Governments of Turkey, Italy and Yemen, in partnership with their civil society organizations -- namely, No Peace Without Justice, The Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) and the Human Rights Information and Training Center -- became part of the Democracy Assistance Dialogue (DAD) of the U.S.-led Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative (BMENA), which set up in order to support and encourage reform of democracy within the region by fostering constructive dialogue between governments and members of civil society. Turkey, as a co-sponsor of DAD, focused on advancing dialogue and reform in the areas of empowerment of women. Significant activities have taken place with the sponsorship of Turkish government in Turkey emphasizing women in public life.

The BMENA Gender Institute, which facilitates and supports review of the full and effective implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in the countries of the region, was launched by Turkish NGOs, the Global Political Trends Center (GpoT) and TESEV in 2009. The idea of the project was solidified within the framework of Forum for the Future a centerpiece of BMENA Partnership. As a part of the EU-led Barcelona Process, the First Euro-Mediterranean Ministerial Conference on "Strengthening the Role of Women in Society" was held in Istanbul in November 2006 in order to make possible equal participation of women and men in all spheres of life, which is accepted as one of the essential elements of democracy.

Turkey also introduced several reforms in the area of women's rights. Turkish legislation on women rights has greatly improved through the changes in the Turkish Penal Code, Civil Code, Labor Code, Family Law and Municipality Law. In 2005, the penal code was changed to criminalize marital rape and level higher sentences for sexual crimes and harshen the sentences for those convicted of honor killings, which previously carried reduced sentenced because of "provocation". Thus, the prospect of EU membership accelerated already existing efforts of the women's movements in Turkey. In 2009, a Parliamentary Committee on Equal Opportunities for Men and Women was established for the first time. Turkey was the first country to ratify the Council of Europe's Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (CAHVIO), the Istanbul Convention, in 2012. Despite the reforms made by the government and regional initiatives, which also covers not only Turkey but also the entire MENA region, violence against women in recent years has increased. Professor Aysel Çelikol, head of the Support for Contemporary Living Association (ÇYDD), drew a correlation between the increase in the inequality between the genders and increased level of violence men commit against women, arguing "women's rights are going backward as much as conservatism is increasing in the society."

Prevention or Punishment?

With the brutal killing of Özgecan Aslan, the necessity of effective ways to prevent domestic violence and rape cases has come to the agenda. Some politicians, like Ayşenur Islam, the Family and Social Policies Minister of Turkey, have even called for reinstatement of the death penalty, which was abolished in 2004 as a part of the democratization process in Turkey that was strongly motivated by the European Union. The emerging debate on the death penalty, which was banned as a part of Turkey's negotiation to join the European Union, also led to debate on the effectiveness of the EU and its transformative power on Turkey since the claims arose on the basis that this debate demonstrates waning EU influence.

As a part of these debates, Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, said the focus of the Turkish government should be much more on preventing cases from happening and not punishing the excessive cases after they happen. She is partly right. I am saying partly because reinstating the death penalty and its execution on rapists or murderers is questionable, since previously the death penalty was mostly executed on political activists or politicians for crimes against the state, the Constitution and military, while judges opted to give reduced sentences to rapists and murderers.

We should not discuss the reinstatement of death penalty; instead, we should ask ourselves who is responsible for violence against women? Judges who gave reduced sentences to rapists and murderers based on the oddest reasons, or the "good conduct" clause that enables reduction in prison terms for defendants with no record of past conviction, or conservative politicians who do not believe in equality between men and women and make remarks such as "women should not laugh loudly in public" or people who see rape as a right to retain if a woman wears a miniskirt and thinks that she "deserves it." Whatever the reason behind it, this catastrophic event indicated to us once more that enacting rules or making reforms cannot by themselves help to empower women and prevent violence against women unlike these reforms are internalized by the people from top to bottom. The government of Turkey should focus much more on internalization of the reforms (like those it pioneered once upon a time) to prevent them from being merely cosmetic.