women's rights groups are preparing for a meeting this week with family and Social Policy Minister Fatma Şahin, who drafted a new bill to address cases of violence against women in Turkey, where almost half of all women say they have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of their husbands or partners.
The ministry and civil society groups have been in touch with each other regarding how the bill, “The Draft law for the protection of Women and Family Members from Violence,” should be shaped. However, women's groups have been uneasy about the way their communication with the ministry has gone, since they say the ministry keeps making changes to the bill without consulting them.
For example, the ministry made critical changes to the law just before meeting with women's organizations but did not make these organizations aware of the changes prior to or at the meeting. The changes were with regards to the eligibility of women for protection from violence. Even though the previous draft encompassed all women, including “those in close relationships” – pertaining to unmarried women who are involved in a relationship -- in the latest draft that clause had been removed.
Rights groups have said that in its current form, the law will only pertain to couples who are married, engaged or divorced. There has been speculation in the media over who removed this clause from the draft bill, but in a recent interview with Today's Zaman, Şahin admitted that she had done it.
“We put it there because we wanted to give more power to family court judges to protect women. However, other laws would run contrary to the expression ‘those living in cohabiting relationships.' Our legal advisers recommended we take it out. Obviously, we want to protect all women against violence; this is what the draft law is called -- the draft law to protect woman and family members from violence. We should try to change the view that if there is no marriage license, there will be no protection, which is sometimes defended by the media,” Şahin said.
She also emphasized the importance of coming together with women's groups once again before her ministry submits the draft law to the Council of Ministers for authorization before it goes to Parliament for debate.
“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,” she added.
Their meeting will be on Jan. 12, and the rights groups have been studying other recent changes in the draft law as well. However, they have been dismayed because those recent changes, made Jan. 5, do not appear to be desirable.
One issue of concern is the authority that would be given to district officials. The Platform to End Violence, which consists of many women's groups that have been working for several decades on changes to the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) to improve the status of women in society, defends the previous draft as it was a well-intentioned move to give authority to district officials to help women who need urgent help. However, in the current draft the “urgent need” clause has been removed. Their concern is that every district official will try to impose his or her own rules regarding the cases, which would be better left to family court judges.
“For example, provincial district governors should not have the general authority to act like judges,” said women's rights activist and lawyer Hülya Gülbahar.
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.
The new law is expected to find solutions to that problem, to provide more protection for women and to punish the perpetrators of violence more severely. In addition, specialists from civil society have been providing training for family judges and prosecutors to influence their attitudes toward international standards as to how to approach cases of domestic violence.
At the beginning of the process, approximately 220 women's organizations signed a draft law they had prepared to address the issue of domestic violence and submitted it to Şahin; some of their demands have been included in the ministry's draft law, while others have not been.