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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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Delta COVID Variant Reportedly Draws Biden’s Attention, Resources Away From Other Priorities

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Despite high overall rates of vaccinations in the US, more and more Americans are getting infected with the new, rapidly spreading ‘delta’ variant of the coronavirus, once again testing the limits of hospitals and reportedly sparking talks about new mask-up orders from authorities.

The rapidly increasing number of new COVID-19 cases in the US caused by the more infectious delta strain of the virus is frustrating the Biden administration, as the problem draws attention and resources away from other priorities that the White House would like to concentrate on, the Washington Post reported, citing several anonymous sources. Among the problems that the administration reportedly had to de-prioritise are Biden’s infrastructure initiatives, voting rights, an overhaul of policing, gun control and immigration.

The White House reportedly hoped that the pandemic would be gradually ebbing by this time, allowing it to focus more on other presidential plans. Instead, the Biden administration is growing “anxious” about the growing number of daily COVID-19 cases, the newspaper sources said. The White House press secretary indirectly confirmed that Biden is currently preoccupied with the pandemic the most.

“Getting the pandemic under control [and] protecting Americans from the spread of the virus has been [and] continues to be his number-one priority. It will continue to be his priority moving forward. There’s no question,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on 22 July.

The administration had reportedly expected new outbreaks in the country, but not as many as they’re seeing. Current analytical models predict anything between a few thousand new cases and 200,000 new infected daily, the Washington Post reported. Washington also fears that daily deaths might reach over 700 per day, up from the current average of 250. However, the White House doesn’t expect the pandemic numbers to return to their 2020 peak levels.

At the same time, the Biden administration is trying to find scapegoats to blame for the current shortcomings in fighting the coronavirus pandemic in the country. Namely, Biden  last week accused the social media platform of failing to combat the spread of disinformation on COVID-19 and thus “killing people”. The statement raised many eyebrows since many platforms mark COVID-related posts and insert links to reliable sources of information regarding the disease and the vaccination efforts aimed at fighting it. The White House also hinted that the Republican-controlled states became the main sources of new COVID cases, while often underperforming in terms of vaccination rates.



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Sierra Leone abolishes death penalty | Global development

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Sierra Leone has become the latest African state to abolish the death penalty after MPs voted unanimously to abandon the punishment.

On Friday the west African state became the 23rd country on the continent to end capital punishment, which is largely a legacy of colonial legal codes. In April, Malawi ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, while Chad abolished it in 2020. In 2019, the African human rights court ruled that mandatory imposition of the death penalty by Tanzania was “patently unfair”.

Of those countries that retain the death penalty on their statute books, 17 are abolitionist in practice, according to Amnesty International.

A de facto moratorium on the use of the death penalty has existed in Sierra Leone since 1998, after the country controversially executed 24 soldiers for their alleged involvement in a coup attempt the year before.

Under Sierra Leone’s 1991 constitution, the death penalty could be prescribed for murder, aggravated robbery, mutiny and treason.

Last year, Sierra Leone handed down 39 death sentences, compared with 21 in 2019, according to Amnesty, and 94 people were on death row in the country at the end of last year.

Rhiannon Davis, director of the women’s rights group AdvocAid, said: “It’s a huge step forward for this fundamental human right in Sierra Leone.

“This government, and previous governments, haven’t chosen to [put convicts to death since 1998], but the next government might have taken a different view,” she said.

“They [prisoners] spend their life on death row, which in effect is a form of torture as you have been given a death sentence that will not be carried out because of the moratorium, but you constantly have this threat over you as there’s nothing in law to stop that sentence being carried out.”

Davis said the abolition would be particularly beneficial to women and girls accused of murdering an abuser.

“Previously, the death penalty was mandatory in Sierra Leone, meaning a judge could not take into account any mitigating circumstances, such as gender-based violence,” she said.

Umaru Napoleon Koroma, deputy minister of justice, who has been involved in the abolition efforts, said sentencing people on death row to “life imprisonment with the possibility of them reforming is the way to go”.

Across sub-Saharan Africa last year Amnesty researchers recorded a 36% drop in executions compared with 2019 – from 25 to 16. Executions were carried out in Botswana, Somalia and South Sudan.

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[Ticker] EU to share 200m Covid vaccine doses by end of 2021

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The European Commission announced it is on track to share some 200 million doses of vaccines against Covid-19 before the end of the year. It says the vaccines will go to low and middle-income countries. “We will be sharing more than 200 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines with low and middle-income countries by the end of this year,” said European commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

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