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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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Eduardo Zapateiro: Colombian army chief resigns to avoid appearing beside president-elect Petro at inauguration | International

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General Eduardo Zapateiro, the commander of the Colombian army, resigned on Tuesday to avoid appearing beside president-elect Gustavo Petro at his inauguration on August 7. “After 40 years in service, I bid farewell to the Colombian people, giving my heartfelt thanks to all my soldiers,” he announced.

Zapateiro, who comes from the hardline wing of the armed forces, has been a vocal opponent of the leftist leader. During the presidential election campaign, the army commander controversially spoke out against Petro on Twitter – a move that was condemned as unconstitutional. Incumbent President Iván Duque, however, defended Zapateiro, arguing that the general was sharing his point of view – not taking a political stand.

Zapateiro announced his retirement just one day after Petro told EL PAÍS that he planned to change the leadership of the armed forces. “This leadership was deeply imbued by the political line of the executive [of Iván Duque] now reaching the end of its term. But this path is unsustainable and turns our security forces into a victim, as they have been led to perpetrate grotesque violations of human rights. What we are proposing will make our security forces democratically stronger,” he said in the interview.

The Colombian general has often raised eyebrows with his behavior. Following the death of Jhon “Popeye” Jairo Velásquez, a henchman for drug lord Pablo Escobar who had killed dozens of people, Zapateiro sent his condolences to his family and said he was saddened by his loss. To this day, no one has explained why the general made these statements.

In Colombia, the government and the military have a complex relationship. The country has fought for decades against guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). The ongoing armed struggle placed the military in a position of great power. Indeed until the 1990s, the armed forces controlled the Defense Ministry. As in many other countries, the Colombian armed forces are a conservative group that is highly suspicious of leftist ideas. The peace agreement, for example, that ended five decades of conflict with the FARC, divided Colombia’s troops. Zapateiro initially supported the accords, but over time, became an outspoken critic.

What kind of relationship Petro will form with the military remains to be seen. As a politician, he has been very critical of the army’s focus on targeting internal enemies. The Colombian armed forces have been fighting against guerrilla groups and drug gangs for decades. During this conflict, they have often overstepped their bounds and violated human rights.

In the early 2000s, a scandal broke in Colombia when it was revealed that military officers were carrying out summary executions of innocent civilians and listing them as guerrillas killed in combat. These so-called “false positives” took place in different regions of the country between 2002 and 2008 and were used as proof of performance by military units and to collect “kill fees” awarded by the government of former president Álvaro Uribe. A total of 6,402 innocent people are estimated to have been killed in these summary executions. Just a few months ago, several civilians also died in suspicious circumstances during an army operation in Putumayo.

With Petro elected as Colombia’s first leftist president in modern history, it was no longer tenable to have Zapeteiro leading the armed forces. The Colombian newspaper El Espectador published an editorial to that effect, with the headline: “Isn’t it time to retire, General Zapateiro?”

Petro aims to tackle corruption within the army, which he believes is home to extremist factions. “There are currents in the far right that must be eliminated. Some are talking openly about coups and things like that. But look, within the army there are no factions friendly to Petro, there are factions friendly to the Constitution,” Petro told EL PAÍS.

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Canada should focus on abortion access not legislation, advocates say | Global development

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Abortion advocates are warning that the recent US supreme court ruling overturning Roe v Wade will empower anti-choice groups in Canada to push for restricted access, making a settled matter appear controversial in a country where nearly 80% of people are pro-choice.

A key anti-choice strategy in Canada revolves around enacting abortion legislation – an idea that has been gaining traction amid the fallout of the US court ruling. There is currently no abortion law in Canada, making it the only country in the world where the procedure is totally free of legal restrictions.

“There’s a lot of talk right now about whether or not the Canadian government should pass a proactive law protecting our right to abortion – a pre-emptive strike, if you will. That would be a big mistake,” said Daphne Gilbert, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.

Gilbert and other abortion advocates say that while enshrining abortion rights may sound progressive, the opposite is true: consolidating rules would make it easier for anti-choice legislators to retract abortion rights if ever they found themselves in a majority. Last year, 81 Conservative MPs (and one independent) voted for anti-choice legislation.

And while the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, promised Canadians after Roe that his government would “always stand up for your right to choose”, advocates argue that may not always be true.

That’s why the country should focus on entrenching people’s rights by expanding abortion access, said Gilbert.

Since it became legal in a 1988 supreme court ruling, abortion in Canada has been designated as a medical service like any other, on par with procedures like X-rays and blood tests. But that doesn’t make it easy to get – especially in remote, religious or conservative parts of the country.

In 2014, Sarah (who asked to remain anonymous) sought an abortion on Prince Edward Island (PEI) – a province of 30,000 that, at the time, did not have a single publicly operating abortion provider.

It took Sarah a month to finally secure a provider – five hours away, in another province. The trip incurred travel and lodging costs, but the procedure itself was covered by the healthcare authority.

“The idea that anybody has to travel to take care of something that you should be able to get done close to home – it’s not fine,” said Sarah. Abortion care only arrived on PEI in 2017, after activists sued the provincial government for acting unconstitutionally.

Although there is no federal law, each province’s medical college sets its own guidelines on abortion, including gestational age limits for use of the abortion pill.

Those guidelines are shaped by the skills and training available in each province, said Martha Paynter, an abortion care provider in Nova Scotia and the author of the new book Abortion to Abolition: Reproductive Health and Justice in Canada.

But there is also a political dimension to providing abortion care that prevents some doctors and nurse practitioners from taking it up.

“More people could be doing it than are doing it,” said Paynter. “We as educators – I’m a prof at a nursing school – have the responsibility to teach in every medical and nursing program how to do this care, and hardly [any school] does it.”

Paynter is the creator of the country’s first university abortion course, at Dalhousie University, which is open to students across medical, nursing and other health programs with the purpose of inspiring future health workers to integrate abortion access into primary care.

The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists offers an online course to teach professionals how to prescribe and manage medical abortion.

But most students and healthcare professionals are not required to learn about how medication and surgical abortion work – and many choose to abstain because they are afraid to enter the political fray around abortion.

According to Gilbert, that means a lot of primary care providers stay wilfully uninformed.

“A lot of doctors just aren’t political people. They’re scientists, and they don’t see the politics behind some of their care,” she said.

Further complicating access is the fact that many Canadians are unaware that nurse practitioners in the country are permitted to prescribe the abortion pill and refer patients to surgical abortion providers – or that most patients can self-refer directly to an abortion provider.

Addressing these issues is critical to expanding existing access to medication and surgical abortion, said Paynter and Gilbert.

In 2017, Natalie (also a pseudonym) discovered she was pregnant while visiting her parents in a small town in northern Alberta. After one doctor at a local walk-in clinic told her abortion was murder, she demanded an appointment with a different doctor.

That doctor told her that there was no such thing as medical abortion. “He looked me in the face and said, ‘That doesn’t exist,’” she said.

Mifegymiso – otherwise known as the abortion pill – was approved by Health Canada in 2015, but had only recently hit the market when Natalie found herself at the doctor’s office.

“I know it exists. It’s literally the front page of the news,” she told him.

Still, she went away empty-handed. She was only able to get an abortion after returning to her home province of New Brunswick, where only three hospitals and one clinic provide abortion. Natalie went to the clinic, where she paid $800 for a surgical abortion – a cost incurred because the province refuses to pay for abortions performed outside of hospitals.

New Brunswick is currently being sued for its restriction of abortion.

Stories like those of Sarah and Natalie show how abortion remains inaccessible in Canada, despite its federal legal standing.

“Our greatest problems really come in terms of provinces and what they may do to restrict access to abortion in light of what I think is now going to be a really emboldened anti-choice movement,” said Gilbert.

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Missing child in Germany: German boy found alive after surviving eight days in sewer | International

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German police have found an eight-year-old boy who went missing from his home in Oldenburg, a city of 170,000 people in northwestern Germany. The child, named Joe, was discovered on Saturday in a sewer just 300 meters from his house. He had survived in the sewer for eight days while hundreds of officers and volunteers frantically searched the surface for clues to his whereabouts. “Eight-year-old Joe lives!” police in Oldenburg announced on Twitter.

The boy, who suffers from learning disabilities, disappeared on June 17 from the garden of his house. Police launched a large-scale search with drones, helicopters, sniffer dogs and dozens of officers, who were joined by hundreds of volunteers. As the days passed, a homicide team joined the investigation amid growing fears that Joe – who is only identified by his first name due to Germany’s privacy laws – could have been the victim of a violent crime. A witness claimed to have seen him in the company of an unidentified man and it was feared he may have been kidnapped.

“It was absolute luck,” said Stephan Klatte, the Oldenburg police spokesman, said of Joe’s discovery. A neighbor who was walking in the area raised the alarm when he heard “a whining noise” coming from the ground, just under a drain. When officers lifted the manhole cover, they found the boy, completely naked. He had no serious external injuries, but was dehydrated and suffering from hypothermia, for which he was taken to hospital for treatment. According to German media, he is recovering well. “If he hadn’t made a sound, or if no one had heard him, we might never have found him,” Klatte said.

In a statement, the police reported that they believed that Joe likely entered the rainwater drainage system through a sewer on the same day of his disappearance and “lost his bearings after walking several meters.” Police have ruled out any foul play in the incident.

On Sunday, the day after Joe was discovered, police commissioned a specialized company to inspect the sewage system with a robot equipped with a camera. The robot examined the sewer between the boy’s home and the place where he was found. It recorded several items of clothing, including what he was wearing when he disappeared, in a pipe about 60 centimeters in diameter that runs under one of the streets of the neighborhood where he lives with his parents. The robot found, for example, the child’s vest, 70 meters from the point of entry.

Officers found an entrance to a three-foot-wide drainage channel near the farm where he was last seen on the day of his disappearance. Authorities believe the boy entered the channel while playing. After 23 meters, the tunnel leads to another narrower plastic pipe and police think it is likely the eight-year-old continued down this path. Joe was eventually found about 290 meters from where he entered the sewer system.

Police believe that Joe became more and more disoriented until he could no longer find a way out. “A first statement from the child confirms this assumption,” said the statement, which does not provide more details about what he told officers. Investigators say they have not been able to question the boy in detail, as he remains in hospital. Nothing has been found to suggest that the child came to the surface in the eight days in which he was missing. In the statement, police asked that no questions about his state of health be made out of respect for him and his family.



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