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Opinion: Turkey’s “Return to the Family” in the face of Domestic Violence | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Women hold a banner reading “Stop Killing Women” and pictures of women killed to denounce violence against women in Turkey on May 11, 2013 in Ankara. (Adem Altan/AFP)

Almost every day, there is news from various parts of Turkey about women and children being raped or killed. According to statistics one Turkish MP provided during a recent parliamentary debate, close to 900 women were murdered between 2008 and 2013, with 40 percent committed by husbands, 16 percent by relatives, and the remainder by someone known to the woman, such as an ex-husband or boyfriend. The numbers regarding the murder of children are no less dramatic: 633 children died of preventable causes in 2013, again largely at the hands of a relative.

With such grievous violence committed against women and children by their close family members, it is crucial to discuss what the current government’s family policies will mean for Turkish women and children, whose human rights are already limited. After all, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said his government supports an increased fertility rate—to preserve Turkey’s young population —and has called abortion “murder” in the past, clearly betraying his belief that the role of a woman is to have and raise children.

A response by Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ to one MP’s call for a motion on the latest statistics on crimes against women is equally telling of the government’s approach to the issue. He said his ministry did not keep such figures and that perhaps the MP should ask the Ministry of Family and Social Policies. Rather than being a question of justice, under the current government domestic violence is considered to be a family policy issue. But even then, the response to incidences of domestic violence against children by the Ministry of Family largely consist of trite reminders about proper child care. Recently, when a child in Adana was killed by a relative, the family minister’s response was that this killing underscored the necessity of educating families and teaching children to scream when confronted with violence.

The approach to reducing the number of violent crimes committed against women and children through the strengthening of familial ties can be seen over and over again in numerous cases. In October 2005, the news of widespread abuse in a children’s home operated by the Social Services and Child Protection Agency in Malatya prompted important public criticism about these malfunctioning state childcare institutions. But very few people said this case revealed the need to reform state institutions and provide effective child protective services; rather, everyone was saying it illustrated the need to encourage families to take proper responsibility for their children and not entrust their protection to the state.

Then the social services agency started a project called “Return to the Family,” under which children who are wards of the state are pushed to return to their families based on the belief that their physical, psychological and moral development is threatened because they are not being cared for by their relatives. Even the name of the responsible institution, the Ministry of Family and Social Policies, was chosen after the State Ministry Responsible for Women and Family was closed. This was accompanied by the provision of family consultation centers, family lawyers and family health centers.

But this renewed focus on the family is based on an idea of it as a threatened institution—an idea contradicted by the available statistics. The divorce rate is steady, and Turkey has the highest marriage rate and the lowest female employment rate among OECD countries. The fact that women become homemakers in far greater numbers than in other leading economies actually highlights how unthreatened the family is, considering that women who do not work are usually reliant on their husbands for economic security, thus divorce is not usually considered an option even when a woman is systematically exposed to violence.

True, some progressive policy measures regarding the rights of women and children have been taken as part of the EU integration process and to bring Turkey into compliance with the obligations of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. But the familialization of domestic violence in Turkey is leading to contradictions whereby some policies protect and empower women and children and others seek to promote the idea of the family, often at the expense of women and children.

Despite the fact that Turkey’s parliament adopted a law making it compulsory for municipalities to establish women’s shelters, in many places they either never opened or they were closed down after opening due to the low number of women applying for shelter. As of 2011, more than 100 municipalities were known not to be complying with the law, and many of those that did comply were not running the shelters properly. Rather than taking measures to encourage battered women to take refuge in such shelters, for the most part such women are left with no option other than to seek help at places that could very well try to encourage them to preserve family unity even in the face of extreme violence: family consultation centers, family lawyers and family health centers.

This starry-eyed belief in the family as the main source of safety for women is dangerous. It means legal reforms that are supposed to protect and empower women often don’t work properly. For example, when the government increased penalties for domestic abuse in 2005, some girls were pressured by family members to kill themselves to preserve the family’s honor rather than have a male family member face a long prison sentence. There are many good reasons to doubt whether the measures taken so far to guarantee the individual and citizenship rights of women will be effective.