In a year of pandemic and pain, women fight back with mass protests

Large-scale protests erupted in Turkey following the killing of 27-year-old Pinar Gultekin by her former partner in July, one of at least 234 women killed in Turkey since the beginning of the year. Some politicians from President Erdogan’s ruling party have suggested that Turkey should withdraw from the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, known as the Istanbul Convention. This would be a worrying step backwards in a country where hundreds of women are killed by current or former partners or male relatives every year.

Turkish women’s rights groups have called for action to address the country’s high rate of femicide, failure to protect women at risk, and lack of punishment for their killers. The number of femicides has risen annually since 2011 – the same year that Turkey signed the Istanbul Convention. Women’s groups have long criticised the government’s poor track record on implementing the treaty’s requirements, which establishes minimum standards for prevention and protection from violence and prosecution of offenders. These groups organised widespread protests across Turkey in August, expressing anger that, even as deaths mount, the government might seek to withdraw from a treaty meant to keep women safe from violence.

Activists in Poland also launched protests in the summer when the justice minister announced plans to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. But this was only one of many mass demonstrations in the country in a busy year for women’s rights groups. The protests moved online in April because of COVVID-19 lockdown measures, creating a surge of public opposition to bills that would have further curbed abortion and sexuality education. The bills were sent back to committees for further work.

In October, when the constitutional tribunal announced a decision that will virtually eliminate legal abortion (despite Poland already having some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe), the Women’s Strike (Strajk Kobiet) movement organised what became the biggest demonstrations since the fall of communism in 1989. Fed up with the ruling Law and Justice Party’s repeated attacks on women’s and LGBT rights and the rule of law, crowds show no signs of fading, in spite of risks brought on by the pandemic and threats of prosecution or even violence.

Women have harnessed the power of protest elsewhere too. In Ukraine, they marched to urge their government to ratify the Istanbul Convention. And women in Spain demonstrated in their tens of thousands to call attention to violence against women and gender discrimination.

Spikes in domestic abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic and growing crowds may have garnered the world’s attention, but tackling violence against women requires long-term, systemic investment. Women’s groups are working to ensure that national leaders can’t look away when the pandemic subsides.

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