Şahin: Government determined to protect women from domestic violence

Şahin: Government determined to protect women from domestic violence

Fatma Şahin (Photo: Today's Zaman)

January 08, 2012, Sunday/ 16:48:00/ YONCA POYRAZ DOĞAN

Amid controversy regarding whether a new bill on protecting women and family members against violence has adequate mechanisms to achieve its goal, Family and Social Policy Minister Fatma Şahin, who drafted the legislation, has said that all women will be protected from violence no matter what their civil status is.

“Obviously we want to protect all women against violence; this is what the draft law is called, the bill to protect woman and family members from violence. We should try to change the view that  ‘if there is no marriage license, no protection,' which is sometimes defended by the media.” she said for Monday Talk.

Women's rights groups have been concerned that the language in the new law could result in protection of only married, engaged or divorced women since some courts would not interpret the law to allow protection of women from their partners' violence if they are not married.

Şahin said that they will have a new meeting on Jan. 12 with women's rights groups to resolve the issue.

In addition, the draft law consists of several positive measures to protect those who need it. For example, it provides housing if the individual and children lack this necessity, as well as temporary financial assistance.

Women’s rights groups have been voicing concerns that a new law in the works could result in the protection of only married, engaged or divorced women from abusive partners. “Obviously we want to protect all women against violence; this is what the draft law is called, the bill to protect women and family members from violence. We should try to change the view that ‘if there is no marriage license, no protection’,” Minister Fatma Şahin tells Monday Talk

Fighting against the widespread problem of violence against women is of utmost importance for Turkey as almost half of all women say they have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of their husbands or partners. Moreover, approximately five women each day become victims of violence in the country.

In 1998, Turkey adopted Law 4320 on the Protection of the Family, which was amended in 2007, but there have been problems in its implementation. Even though the spirit of Law 4320 is about protecting women before they are subject to violence, restraining orders for perpetrators of violence are usually issued only after a violent act occurs.

Answering our questions, Şahin elaborated on the issue as well as other topics regarding women’s problems and how she plans to address them.

You are the only female member on the 25-member Cabinet. Do you feel like you are subject to male domination and men’s rules?

Following my graduation from university, I worked in similar conditions. Even in the private sector where I worked in a technical position, there were 13 general managers and 12 of them were men. There were 150 workers, and 148 of them were men. I am used to working with men. I always focus on the job. When I work with men, I try to hold on to my own perspective, my own views, and I use my emotional intelligence. Usually, you have to go by the established rules in order to be successful in work life, but I always tried to stick to my own rules. You know where the expression “Iron Lady” comes from. Women have always been criticized for becoming masculine when they are in the “men’s world.” I think we need to be ourselves; we are half of this world. And we should be able to be successful without having to change ourselves.

How do you think the Cabinet would be if it consisted of half women and half man?

Indeed, this is how life is -- 50 percent men, 50 percent women. The same thing should occur in the Cabinet. We are in a process of change. In the history of the republic, it is the first time that we have the presence of women -- 14 percent –- in Parliament, an increase from 4 percent [in 2000]. Women entered politics, and they managed to stay in politics. I worked very hard in our party organization to increase the number of women in Parliament. I attach great value to having more women in the Cabinet. We can achieve this in the next Cabinet.

You are now heading the newly founded ministry of Family and Social Policy. The name of the ministry has caused a lot of controversy because there was a previous state ministry called the Ministry of Women and Family. What do you think of the name change? Would you rather that “women” stayed in the name of the ministry?

It would be desirable for me to have it stay because I work on the issue more than half of my workday. It would be easier to have the title there since my job pertains to the issue. This is where the visibility is. However, when it comes to how to solve problems in that area, we previously had a state ministry without executive powers; now the ministry has a budget and executive powers. “Women” was removed from the name of the ministry because we have five general directorates under the ministry for handicapped and elderly, for women and family, for relatives of martyrs and veterans, for children’s services and for welfare. The new name was thought to include all of those sub-areas.

‘We have a strong will to solve problems’

Couldn’t there also be “women” in that name since the issue is quite sensitive?

There could be, but the intention is not to pull the status of women down with a name change. The desire is to include all the areas that I mentioned under one title. The public has seen in our administration’s first six months that we spend more than half of our day on issues related to women, and we focus on projects to solve problems. Yes, the name is important but not enough. There needs to be substance. We have a strong will to solve problems. People need to see what we are doing.

I have a lot questions regarding the substance. Last year, I interviewed the UN Women’s Executive Director Michelle Bachelet, and she said that ending pandemic violence against women is one of the top priorities of the United Nations as violence against women occurs everywhere, not just in underdeveloped and developing countries as assumed. I wonder how this issue is seen from your perspective. Can you say that preventing violence against women is a top priority for your ministry?

This problem is as old as human history, but it has become much more visible in recent times. Women have become much more powerful than before as human rights have improved and led to improvements also in the area of women’s rights. Globalization has helped people to be aware of each other more in an age of information and communication. Visibility of violence against women has become more prevalent than before. We have been studying the issue of violence against women for a long time, not just for the last six months, not just for the last few years. When I was the head of the parliamentary commission to investigate honor crimes, I was involved in the theoretical and practical side of the issue. We had no reliable statistics on the issue. We had no infrastructure to deal with the issue. We started to compile regional statistics that showed us that the cases of violence against women are higher in big cities where there has been great migration from the countryside. When there is transition from rural to urban life, from traditional to modern family life, we see that some families cannot cope with the problems of their changing lives. We also see that we have deficiencies in the area of laws and even if there are some laws, we fall short in regards to their implementation. Now we are in a new process. We have a draft law.

Now, where exactly is the draft law [to protect women and family members from violence, which was written by the Family and Social Policy Ministry]; have you submitted it to the Cabinet yet before it goes to Parliament?

We recently submitted it to the Cabinet, but before it is opened to authorization by the ministers, we will come together with women’s groups this week to discuss some issues.

‘We work with civil society’

Women’s rights groups have concerns about some expressions and content in the draft law. They are furious about the decision to remove the clause “those living together in close relations” from the draft law because they say that the change means many women -- including young girls who are forced to marry at a young age but cannot complete the full civil wedding ceremony due to their age -- will be alienated and left unprotected, and it is the state’s duty to provide every woman with protection from domestic violence, not just women who have a marriage license. Did you remove that expression?

Yes, I put that expression there, and I removed it. We put it there because we wanted to give more power to family court judges to protect women. However, we could not find a match in our laws to correspond to the expression “those living together in close relations.” Our legal advisers recommended that we take it out. Obviously, we want to protect all women against violence; this is what the draft law is called, draft law to protect woman and family members from violence. We should try to change the view that  ‘if there is no marriage license, no protection,’ which is sometimes defended by the media. We have to come together with women’s groups once more to find a solution to the issue. I am sure we will find a solution when we get together and when we explain our reasons for the change in the draft law. We should not be talking to women’s groups via the media.

There are also other issues that are of concern to women’s rights groups. One of those is about the lack of an effective observation and inspection mechanism involving women’s groups for providing social services for the victims. They are quite critical of the suggested mechanism involving probation offices that could bring victims of violence and perpetrators of crimes face to face.

Fatma Şahin, minister of Family and Social Policy

A native of Gaziantep, she graduated from İstanbul Technical University’s chemical engineering department. She worked as a chemical engineer at Sanko Holding where she held upper management positions. She was among the founding members of the AK Party where she served as the chairperson of the women’s branch. In 2002, Şahin was elected to Parliament. She has been elected three times from her hometown, and she is the first female member of Parliament elected from Gaziantep

This is a justified demand, but we will gradually move to that system, not right away. We will be in a transition period for two years in that regard, and eventually, we [the ministry] will be involved in the observation and inspection mechanisms. But currently we cannot ignore the presence of the services of the probation offices and start a completely new mechanism.

Another issue of concern is in regards to the obligation of all, including civil society organizations, to inform public authorities when they become aware of violent acts. Women’s groups say that this would be a huge responsibility for civil society organizations dealing with women’s issues, and women should act of their own volition to go to a prosecutor or the police.

We just removed that clause from the draft law.

‘PSAs to raise awareness on gender equality’

One other issue is about some anticipated punishments for the media if they inappropriately report on issues of violence against women?

We won’t have that. We have been concerned about how some news is presented, which can hurt the public’s sensibilities and violate victims’ rights. We were concerned especially after a particular presentation -- when one daily published an uncensored image of a victim of domestic violence -- caused a lot of reaction in society. We understand that there are laws regarding the media to address this. We are planning public service announcements [PSAs] to raise awareness, particularly about gender equality, women’s employment and fighting against violence against women and children. We also will have information on how the new ministry works, how the ALO 183 [women and children’s issues hotline] works. We will have several short films in that regard and plan to release those films following approval of the draft law. State and private television and radio stations will be required to air those PSAs.

When do you think the law will take effect?

We can have parliamentary approval in a period as short as one week following approval by the Cabinet. We will first have a meeting with women’s groups and then submit it to Parliament.

You also had ambitious statements in regards to increasing the number of women’s shelters in Turkey as they are crucial for protection of women from violence. What are you planning to do in that regard?

We have almost completed our work in that regard. We are starting a major campaign. We met with municipal administrations about doing their jobs [since Municipal Law No. 5393 requires that if an area under the jurisdiction of a municipality has a population of more than 50,000, that municipality is required to open a women’s shelter. If the law was implemented, there would be 3,800 women’s shelters in Turkey, but there are only 83 shelters]. We need to increase the number of shelters and improve their quality. With the approval of the new law to combat violence, yes, law-enforcement officials need to do a better job, but there are things that we can do, too. Women who stay in shelters should be better equipped because they need to deal with the difficulties of life when they go out. For example, we signed a protocol with the Ministry of Education to provide services for women. If they have not completed their educational degrees, we will help. If they are illiterate, we will teach them how to read and write. If they would like to have an occupation, we will help them with courses inside the shelters without having to force them to go outside to gain such skills. We will also help them to find jobs, and we will also provide financial support for those women.

‘We have to change mentality of men’

Do you aim at a specific quantity when it comes to increasing the number of women’s shelters?

Municipalities should be more responsible, but if they are not acting in that regard, there is no penalty, no sanction for them. We will either make changes in the law to enforce the rules or have a more effective inspection mechanism. Currently, in the shelters -- of both municipalities and civil society -- there is a 1,700-bed capacity and a 70 percent occupancy rate. We are working to increase both numbers and quality of services in women’s shelters.

You mentioned courses for couples before they get married. Do you think this will help to eliminate violence against women?

One of the most important problems between couples is lack of communication. If they commit to a life-long union, this becomes even more important. We go to courses before we get our driver’s license. The institution of marriage is no less serious than driving. Municipalities have had successful results in those courses in which we try to raise awareness on issues to facilitate better communication between couples.

You have said that men need to realize that women have human rights…

I always emphasize that we have to change the mentality of men in regards to women. They have to understand and recognize the rights of women to live, work and be educated. We see that even more educated men haven’t fully developed this perspective in regards to women’s human rights. We are in for the long haul to change that.

Day care centers to be opened

While you were working at the [Justice and Development Party] AK Party’s women’s branches, you strongly advocated opening day care centers so children can obtain pre-school education and skills, and women can participate in the labor force. However, years have passed and there have not been developments in that area. Why?

We couldn’t create a good model. It should be understood that everybody - - employers, employees, unions, professional chambers - - not just state, should work together to establish day care centers. We are in the process of making a protocol with the Ministry of Labor [and Social Security]. This will be completed soon. We are also working with the Ministry of Industry [and Commerce]. We are working on different models to solve the problem. We have to work with various ministries in a synchronized way to find solutions just as we did for combating violence against women --- ministries of justice, interior, education and health have all been involved.

The European Union announced 2012 as the European Year for Active Ageing. The situation in Turkey is not the same as in Europe, but the Turkish population will age, too. You supported the prime minister’s call for couples to have at least three children against an aging population. Do you still support it?

I don’t change my position from one day to another. I support it based on scientific demographic data showing a declining trend in birth rates. I have not changed my position.

But you also support women’s participation in the labor force, how is it going to be possible for women to work when they have to take care of at least three children plus provide elder care, as is the case for most women?

We don’t have to look at the issue as an either/or choice. We have to work on all of those problems. We will implement measures to reduce the workload on women, and at the same time we will work to increase both our young population and its quality. We are talking about Turkey’s plans for 2023 and 2050.

Are you opening more day care centers this year?

We are going to announce the opening of day care centers in the first half of the year.

Elderly care centers?

There are many dimensions to the issue as life expectancy has extended by about 15 years for humans. Now we have a big demand for nursing homes. In particular, we are working with the Ministry of Health to cater to this demand and increase the quality of nursing homes to make them livelier. We want to include our elderly in life.

Child labor, child marriages to be eliminated

Turkey has a big problem when it comes to child labor. What are your plans to combat this problem?

We work with the International Labour Organization (ILO) in that regard. In addition, Turkey’s current eight years of compulsory education will be increased to 12 years [per a draft bill recently prepared by Parliament’s Education Commission]. In primary education, we reached 98 percent compliance, but in later education that percentage drops to 68 percent. In those missed school years, we see child labor, marriage of under age girls, etc. Increasing the duration of compulsory education will help a great deal to eliminate child labor and child marriages.

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