DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — In the mid-1990s, at the height of the conflict between Kurdish militants and the security forces, violence became a daily reality in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast. Amid the bloody clashes, extrajudicial killings and disappearances of detainees, other rampant problems in the region — violence against women, honor killings and early marriage — received little media coverage and public attention. One Kurdish woman, however, resolved to break the wall of apathy and offer women a ray of hope. The widow of a victim of an unresolved political killing, retired teacher Nebahat Akkoc, dedicated her life to the struggle for women’s rights, taking aim at die-hard patriarchal norms and women’s own submission.
Akkoc and her fellow activists set to work in 1996, conducting surveys among women to better identify and document their problems. The following year, they established the Women’s Consultation Center (KAMER) in Diyarbakir, the largest city of the southeast. Helping victims of domestic violence and protecting women whose lives were in danger for “staining” family honor became the focus of KAMER’s work in its early years. The center soon emerged as a rescuer of scores of women who suffered violence, fell victim to rape or feared death at the hands of relatives seeking to “cleanse” their family honor.
As women across the world mark International Women’s Day on March 8, KAMER — now more than 20 years old — has a proud record to celebrate as one of Turkey’s leading women’s organizations, decorated with national and international awards. So what has changed for women in the past two decades?
For Akkoc, the biggest change is the notable decrease in early and forced marriages. In 1997, when KAMER was just starting off, 52% of marriages in the southeast were either early or forced, she recalled in an interview with Al-Monitor. “Now, they are down to 33-35%,” she said, stressing that there has been a “serious” decrease in marriages involving girls age 12 and below. “Still,” she added, “the situation remains grave, for 33-35% is not a small number.”
On the positive side, Akkoc hailed a significant increase of awareness among women, describing awareness-raising work as KAMER's “biggest investment.” She said, “According to a survey that we had conducted before 1997, 95 out of 100 women saw suffering violence as a normal part of life. They would say that enduring violence was part of being a woman. Now, surveys by both academics and the Directorate General on the Status of Women show that 90 out of 100 women say that there is no rightful violence, that they will not accept violence and will struggle against it.”
Akkoc estimates that about 55% of violent incidents endured by women in the southeast go unreported. Emboldening those women to speak out and stand up requires “a resolute political [administration] that supports gender equality,” she said. “Yet we do not always see that. In the past several years, in particular, the language of violence has been very dominant. Because of the war and clashes [in the southeast], a militarist mentality has come to the forefront, which contributes to more violence against women and blocks ways of coping with it.”
Akkoc believes that “things will change much faster if normal conditions prevail and women’s organizations get adequate support” from the political leadership.
Akkoc said marriages between men and multiple "co-wives" have also decreased. “When we were starting off, they were close to 20%. Now, they are down to 10%, even 9%,” she said, adding that unofficial marriages — nuptials performed by local imams — had fallen to “next to zero.”
The activist also noted progress on the legal level, recalling that past laws allowed rapists to go unpunished if they agreed to marry their victims. “Today rape is punished with really heavy sentences, or at least this is what the law stipulates. We all know that this is not always the case in practice,” she said. Still, Akkoc is satisfied that perpetrators of honor killings can no longer expect the significant sentence reductions they once received. She said that today's laws, unlike past legislation, also punish relatives who take part in the so-called family councils that sentence women deemed to have stained the family's honor to death. “They get almost the same sentences as the murderers, which is usually life imprisonment” without possibility of parole, she noted.
Over the past two decades, KAMER has extended various forms of support to no less than 550,000 women, but Akkoc still sees a long road ahead. “There are still some senseless sentence reductions for those convicted of honor killings and rapes. Those reductions embolden the crimes and [lessen] the deterrent effects. If it weren’t for them, we could have achieved better results,” she grumbled.
For Akkoc, progress in women's rights is “the hardest struggle” because it challenges mentalities, practices and behavior that “have been internalized and sustained for thousands of years.”
“I doubt we were able to have the impact we wanted for all of those 550,000 women. But if we managed to get through to 30% of them [about their rights], this is still a very good number,” Akkoc said. She said findings from surveys speak of a spillover effect of awareness. “When a woman becomes truly aware of violence and realizes that it is possible to stand against violence and manages to do so, she has a positive impact on 10 women and five children around her,” she said.
Today, KAMER is active in 40 of Turkey’s 81 provinces. “We were a drop, now we have become an ocean,” its slogan says. In recent years, the ocean of solidarity has grown to include Syrian refugees. In addition to special programs for the refugee women, including language courses and health-care support, KAMER has sought to incorporate the Syrians into its existing programs alongside local women. The organization compiled several of these women’s experiences, told in their own words, into a book published in February.
One of the women featured in the book describes how her family had to flee to Turkey to avoid the conscription of their eldest son into the Syrian army. “My husband stayed behind in Syria. I fled with my children, except for my eldest daughter,” Luts, 44, said. “I was never discriminated against for being a Syrian. The women here do not mistreat Syrian women. We are never ostracized.”