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‘History’s on our side’: Turkish women fighting femicide | Women’s rights and gender equality

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“History is on our side,” says Gülsüm Kav. She leans in and speaks intensely. She has a lot to say: Kav helped create Turkey’s We Will Stop Femicide (WWSF) group, and has become one of the country’s leading feminist activists even as the political environment has grown more hostile.

Amid protests, Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul convention, the landmark international treaty to prevent violence against women and promote equality, on Thursday. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has long attacked women’s rights and gender equality, suggesting that feminists “reject the concept of motherhood”, speaking out against abortion and even caesarean sections, and claiming that gender equality is “against nature”.

If Erdoğan is brash and opinionated then Kav, a doctor who lectures in medical ethics, is the opposite. “We work to destigmatise feminism,” she says of We Will Stop Femicide, which she and other members often refer to simply as “the platform”.

Kav is reluctant to say it, but removing the stigma attached to feminism has become more difficult in Turkey, with men’s rights groups and others at odds with her life’s work becoming increasingly empowered by the state. She has come to expect a hostile environment, especially online.

“We’re under some legal pressure, as the platform is affected by countrywide threats to freedom of speech. In some rare cases there might also be threats from the families of perpetrators. Like many activists, I’m sometimes subjected to problems,” she says.

Yet she shrugs off any suggestion that she may be arrested. “Not personally, but collectively there is pressure,” she says, pointing to regional members of WWSF who have been detained or fined.

Protesters hold banners reading ‘We will stop femicides’ during a demonstration against Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul convention, the world’s first binding treaty to combat violence against women.
Protesters hold banners reading ‘We will stop femicides’ during a demonstration against Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul convention, the world’s first binding treaty to combat violence against women. Photograph: Bülent Kılıç/AFP/Getty

The genesis of We Will Stop Femicide came from tragedy. Kav says the murder of a 17-year-old high school pupil, Münevver Karabulut, prompted the group to be founded. Karabulut was killed in 2009 by her boyfriend, Cem Garipoğlu, who subsequently went on the run for six months after Karabulut’s headless body was discovered in a rubbish bin. Istanbul’s then-police chief declared that Karabulut’s family could have prevented the murder “if they took care of their daughter”.

“She wasn’t the first,” says Kav. “But this incident showed us that femicide would only become more important in Turkey from then on. We joined forces with the Karabulut family in order to support them, to shadow them as the trial began, and then we began establishing the platform.”

Kav, along with a coalition of bereaved families, lawyers, trade unions and campaigners, began following trials of other suspected femicides. They showed up in courtrooms across Turkey to doggedly track cases in an attempt to get justice.

But the need has never let up. According to WWSF, 300 Turkish women were murdered last year, most by their partners. A further 171 were found dead in suspicious circumstances.

“When we started our work, it was with the idea of stopping femicides, but in order to do that, you first need to know the numbers,” says Kav.

“We thought the government would know, but apparently they didn’t. So we started drawing up reports from press clippings and the families of victims. We now do full reports as well as deeper analysis.”

Today the platform has grown into a vast network of activists and campaigners across Turkey. It has about 750 active members as well as others who turn out for mass street protests. Many take part in WWSF’s “female assemblies”, with specialised chapters for high school pupils or LGBTQ+ members – the latter a rebuke to Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development party’s (AKP) increasingly anti-gay rhetoric.

The platform also hosts online trainings on women’s legal rights, works as a pressure group to push for changes to Turkish law, and runs a hotline to support women who are in danger.

“This is the type of activity I’m most proud of: keeping women alive,” says Kav. The hotline is designed to help women in police stations report violence against them, sometimes providing an accompanying lawyer, as a way to implement Turkey’s sole law against domestic violence.

Gülsüm Kav in an Istanbul park in June 2021.
Gülsüm Kav says: ‘Only 7% of Turkish people were against the [Istanbul] convention, according to polls. The majority of society is in favour.’ Photograph: Gülsüm Kav/The Guardian

This work has got results. Turkey’s minister for the family began following up on femicide trials, and the government now uses the word “femicide”, due to the group’s work, even if campaigners say it shirks responsibility for combatting it. After a period in which WWSF were the only source of data on femicides in Turkey, the authorities also began to compile their own, although Kav emphasises that the state’s numbers routinely undercount cases.

“Of course our numbers are different,” she says. “The government doesn’t include girls who are under the age of 18 who are victims of femicide, plus they don’t count suspected murders. Our numbers are higher, so the interior ministry says we call everything femicide, but at least they publish reports now,” she adds.

Then there are the cases that become a battle, where Kav and her team have had to become amateur detectives in order to get the state to recognise the murder motive as femicide.

“There are often suspected femicides, meaning that the murder has taken place but the motives are unclear,” she says. “Then there are other types of femicide where the tragedy is concealed as a suicide,” she adds, pointing to the case of Esin Güneş, who was murdered by her husband when the 25-year-old told him she wanted a divorce. “They said she committed suicide by throwing herself on to some rocks, but we proved it was actually a murder,” says Kav.

Proving that a murder was not a suicide is no easy task. “We pressure forensic medicine experts and prosecutors; we find gaps in the incident reports. Often with certain incidents, where the victim has fallen, the court won’t even listen to phone records or collect evidence initially,” says Kav.

She has her own theories about why femicide is endemic in Turkey. “This is the most important issue for modern women in cities and who are looking for their freedom; they need to be backed up by strong policies and systems of justice,” she says.

“Maybe they want to get divorced and work; to reject domestic violence. These women are fundamentally changing what it means to be a woman in Turkey, and yet it created this crisis. Women are trying to realise themselves and male violence is suppressing it,” she says.

A quiet certainty that Turkish people are feminists, despite the state’s efforts to demonise them, motivates Kav. She points to the public outcry over Erdoğan’s decision to withdraw Turkey from the Istanbul convention. “Only 7% of Turkish people were against the convention, according to polls – the majority of society is in favour,” she says. “Even if they don’t know the content, they support it.”

Conservatives in Turkey, which signed the Istanbul convention in 2011, say it undermines the family. They also object to the principle of gender equality and non-discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, which they see as promoting homosexuality.

But Kav says: “Conservative women who wear the headscarf and vote for the [ruling] AKP are on our side, and there are many conservative women in our platform as well, fighting alongside us. Like I said, history is on our side.”

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Climate change: Floods, fires, smog: AI delivers images of how climate change could affect your city | USA

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A simulation of New York's Times Square affected by flooding.
A simulation of New York’s Times Square affected by flooding.

The full brunt of the devastating effects of climate change is still a long way off. If we don’t experience the impact directly, it’s difficult to fully internalize the extreme seriousness of the climate crisis.

That’s why a team at the Mila-Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute, led by Professor Yoshua Bengio, wants to bring it home – right to your doorstep in fact. His team has developed a tool that makes it possible to visualize the effects of floods, wildfires and smog anywhere in the world. Their simulation does this by making use of a generative adversarial network (GAN), a type of machine-learning algorithm. GANs can also produce things such as deepfake images, which are digitally composed of millions of images to create realistic photos of something (or someone) new.

For two years, 30 scientists have worked on the project, which is named after thispersondoesnotexist.com, a website portfolio of deepfake faces. Bengio’s version is called “This Climate Does Not Exist.” All a user has to do is type in an address or select a marker on Google Street View, and then indicate what kind of catastrophe they want to see: flood, wildfire or smog. The algorithm works its magic and returns the image with the requested effect. These images are not intended to be an accurate portrayal of what would happen at each specific location if no action on climate change is taken, but rather are a recreation of the worst possible effects in the scenario of the user’s choice.

The realism is particularly striking in the flooding option, which was the most difficult for Bengio’s team to produce. The algorithm takes the location proposed by the user, automatically places a layer of water on it and then adapts it to the environment of the image itself. The result is hyperrealistic.

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Cibeles Square in Madrid, before and after a hypothetical flooding created by ‘This Climate Does Not Exist.’ The original image is from Google Street View. This Climate Does Not Exist

“One of the most important challenges has been getting the algorithm to simulate flooding in a wide variety of images,” explains Alex Hernandez-Garcia, one of the project’s lead researchers. “One module of the algorithm is in charge of detecting which parts of the image should be covered with water and another module is in charge of generating the water texture by incorporating the context of the image, for example, the reflection of buildings. Finally, these results are combined to generate the final image.”

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The Capitol in Washington DC laboring under the effects of a toxic cloud and flooding, in a simulation created by the team at MILA. The original image is from Google Street View. This Climate Does Not Exist

To detect which parts to cover with water and which to leave unscathed, Hernandez-Garcia and his colleagues combined several artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning techniques. “We generated a virtual city that allowed us to make a series of images with and without water. We also adjusted an algorithm that was able to make good predictions in that virtual world, detecting the different parts of a scene: the ground, cars, buildings, trees, people and so on,” he explained. “However, the algorithm must be able to make good predictions based on real images [those from Google Street View].” For the latter, they used generative adversarial networks.

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Mexico City’s enormous Constitution Square, popularly known as El Zócalo, might look like this in a scenario of wildfires and flooding. The original image is from Google Street View. This Climate Does Not Exist

The process is completed in a few seconds, and before displaying the image to the user some information is provided about the causes and consequences of the selected weather phenomenon, and its relationship to climate change. For example, if a flood is chosen, it indicates that flash floods kill about 5,000 people a year, that sea levels are expected to rise by two meters by the end of the century and that this major disruption to the planet will forever alter the lives of at least one billion people by the end of 2050. “If we do nothing, soon we will face major climate catastrophes,” says Professor Bengio, the institute’s scientific director. “This website makes the risks of climate change much more real and personal to people,” he argues.

Generative adversarial networks

The quality of AI took a giant leap forward about a decade ago with the emergence and consolidation of machine learning and deep learning. These techniques are based on training a machine so that it is capable of performing complex tasks after reaching certain conclusions on its own. For example, if you want the algorithm to distinguish between blueberry muffins and chihuahuas, the programmer will feed it a series of examples of each category, followed by thousands of images that are not pre-sorted. The machine will establish which is which, and when it gets it wrong and is made aware of the error, will refine its criteria.

Bengio won the 2018 Turing Award, considered the Nobel Prize of computer science, along with Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun, for their contribution to the development of neural networks. This is a further step in machine learning that attempts to mimic the functioning of the human brain: applying several simultaneous layers of processing to increase performance. Neural networks are behind the most complex classification systems, such as voice assistants or advanced prediction models.

Generative adversarial networks (GANs) go even further. They were invented at the Mila-Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute in 2014 and are capable of generating new content that looks faultlessly real to the human eye. GANs are behind the increasingly sophisticated deepfake videos of Tom Cruise or Donald Trump now circulating online, in which politicians or celebrities say or act in whichever way their creator likes. They work thanks to competition between two neural networks: one tries to produce images that are as realistic as possible and the other tries to detect whether they are real or a fabrication. This tension is replicated thousands or millions of times and during this process, the generating network learns to create more and more successful images. When the first network succeeds in fooling the second, we have a winning image. From there, a perfectly rendered image of New York City’s Times Square inundated by flooding is just a click away.

The Quebec lab is now using a new type of GAN they have developed to generate the climate change images seen on their website. “In general, the limited availability of images and the need to adapt the algorithm to a multitude of situations have been the main technical challenges we have faced,” says Hernandez-Garcia.

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Assad regime ‘siphons millions in aid’ by manipulating Syria’s currency | Global development

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The Syrian government is siphoning off millions of dollars of foreign aid by forcing UN agencies to use a lower exchange rate, according to new research.

The Central Bank of Syria, which is sanctioned by the UK, US and EU, in effect made $60m (£44m) in 2020 by pocketing $0.51 of every aid dollar sent to Syria, making UN contracts one of the biggest money-making avenues for President Bashar al-Assad and his government, researchers from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Operations & Policy Center thinktank and the Center for Operational Analysis and Research found.

Hit by new US sanctions and the collapse of the banking system in neighbouring Lebanon, cash-strapped Damascus is relying increasingly on unorthodox methods for raising funds – money either pocketed by officials in Damascus for their own personal wealth, or put towards the 10-year-old war effort.

Researchers analysed hundreds of UN contracts to procure goods and services for people living in government-held areas of Syria, where more than 90% of the population are living in poverty since the Syrian pound, or lira, crashed last year.

While the central bank’s official exchange rate has improved this year to SYP2,500 to the US dollar, the black market rate is SYP3,500. Legitimate traders and consumers prefer to use the black market rate, as they receive more Syrian pounds for foreign currency.

Since the UN is forced by the Syrian government to use the official rate, half of foreign aid money exchanged into Syrian pounds in 2020, when the rates were hugely divergent, was lost after being exchanged at the lower, official rate.

“This shows an incredibly systematic way of diverting aid before it even has a chance to be implemented or used on the ground,” said Natasha Hall, of the CSIS, a Washington-based thinktank that helped compile the research.

Syrian central bank staff stack wads of Syrian pounds in Damascus
Syrian central bank staff count SYR1,000 notes, featuring Hafez al-Assad, ex-president and father of Bashar, in 2010. The government makes millions exploiting the gap between the official and black market rate for the currency. Photograph: Hussein Malla/AP

“If the goal of sanctions overall is to deprive the regime of the resources to commit acts of violence against civilians and the goal of humanitarian aid is to reach people in need then we have this instance … where aid is at complete contradiction to those two stated goals.”

After 10 years of civil war in Syria, international donor fatigue, already seen in decreasing aid pledges, has turned to more overt political re-engagement with Assad’s regime.

Without the US playing a strong role in finding a political solution in Syria, which Washington still publicly advocates, Arab nations – including the US-allied Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – have recently restarted diplomatic talks, reopened borders for trade and signalled renewing economic cooperation.

The US allows Damascus to play a major role in funnelling Egyptian gas to Lebanon to power the country’s fuel-depleted power plants. Interpol allowed Syria to rejoin its network even as the fate of dissidents captured throughout the war remains unknown.

Examining 779 publicly available procurements for 2019 and 2020, listed on the UN Global Marketplace database, researchers found that up to $100m was lost in the exchange rate.

If salaries, cash-aid programmes and other funding streams not made public were included, the bank could be making hundreds of millions of dollars, according to researchers.

The funding has been channelled through various UN agencies – the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA); the World Food Programme; the UN Development Programme; the UNHCR; the Food and Agriculture Organisation; and Unicef.

The UN’s financial tracking system told the researchers it did not monitor the amount of money exchanged into Syrian pounds as “tracking such information was beyond the scope of their mission”.

More than 350,000 people have died in Syria over the past decade, and governments have donated on average $2.5bn a year to the UN’s Syria programmes since 2014.

In 2016, the UN was accused of aiding the regime by diverting billions of dollars in aid to government-held regions while leaving besieged areas without food and medicine.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned that UN agencies and governments risked complicity in human rights violations in Syria if they did not ensure transparency and effective oversight.

Last year, the US announced an additional $700m in humanitarian assistance for Syria. The UK government has given £1.59bn in aid to Syria between February 2012 and June 2021.

A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spokesperson said: “The UK does not provide any aid through the Assad regime … Robust processes are in place to ensure that our aid reaches those who need it most.”

Hall said there was a “reticence” about investigating how much aid had been diverted. She said donors were well aware of the problem. “I think it is about [them] choosing certain battles to fight. It’s just not clear to me that any battles are being fought when it comes to aid in Syrian government-held areas today,” she said.

“There’s really no way for us, as independent consultants, to know the full extent of how aid is spent inside the country … We just wanted to flag that, even through this limited portal to understanding how much is spent, it’s already tens of millions of dollars which is hoarded.”

She believes the UN should negotiate a preferential exchange rate with the Syrian government – – to at least reduce the amount siphoned off.

Sara Kayyali, of HRW, said “there was no due diligence in terms of human rights” within UN procurement to avoid bankrolling Syria.

“This should be a wake-up call to the UN … they need to revise the way they provide aid and revise how they consider their obligations to respect human rights in light of this, because it’s difficult to justify this idea that hundreds of millions of dollars are going to an abusive state apparatus,” she said.

Danielle Moylan, a spokesperson for the UN agencies mentioned, said: “The UN welcomes all independent scrutiny of humanitarian operations in Syria. Our foremost priority has, and always will be, assisting the people in need in Syria, guided by humanitarian principles, accountability to the affected populations, transparency, efficiency and effectiveness.

“The majority of UN’s procurement for our humanitarian response in Syria is made in international and regional markets and therefore not affected by the Syrian exchange rate. Otherwise, as is the case in any country, the UN in Syria is required to use the official exchange rate,” Moylan said.

“In the past, the UN and humanitarian partners have negotiated a ‘preferential’ exchange rate for humanitarian operations [and] continues to engage the Central Bank of Syria on the issue of ‘preferential’ exchange rates.”

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Alexei Navalny wins 2021 Sakharov Prize

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The European Parliament announced that Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny has won the Sakharov Prize for defending human rights. The parliament’s president David Sassoli wrote on Twitter: “Alexei Navalny is the winner of this year’s #SakharovPrize. He has fought tirelessly against the corruption of Vladimir Putin’s regime. This cost him his liberty and nearly his life. Today’s prize recognises his immense bravery and we reiterate our call for his immediate release.”

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