March 8, 2021
by Mehmet Bozkaya, published on 8 March 2021

Each year on 8 March, we celebrate International Women’s Day as a symbol of the affirmation of the fact that peace, social progress and international economic order as well as full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms cannot be secured without ensuring equality, full participation and empowerment of women. While the celebration of women’s day dates back to the first decade of the 20th century, more action is still to be taken by all countries to eradicate all forms of discrimination against women and to materialize the equality of men and women.

Women’s day was first observed in the US on 28 February 1909, upon the designation of the Socialist Party of America, to remember the female apparel sector workers who staged a strike in 1908 in New York to protest their working conditions. Then European countries also started to celebrate a day for women in 1910. Besides, women’s day became an occasion to protest World War I. In Russia, thousands of women held rallies as part of the peace movement in 1913. Another huge group of women consisting of more than 1300 participants from over 12 countries congregated in The Hague on 15 April 1915 to protest the war. After that, tens of thousands of Russian female workers again revolted for “bread and peace” on 28 February 1917 and, some argue, played an important role in the abdication of the last Russian Czar and the end of the Romanov dynasty which had been ruling Russia since 1600s. Following World War II, more countries started to celebrate 8 March as women’s day. Eventually, in 1975, the UN began to devote this date to women with a view to highlighting the need for the further empowerment of women in all walks of life.

The Pervasive Nature of Discrimination against Women

As a matter of fact, women globally experience various difficulties in exercising their human rights due to persistent and deep-rooted discrimination against them. Particular forms of the discrimination also amount to violence against women. Furthermore, as a result of perpetuating cultural and religious traditions like female genital mutilation (FGM), many patterns of discrimination against women are unfortunately considered as norms of the respective societies and thereby necessary solutions are being denied or difficult to achieve. In addition, poor implementation by national governments of international human rights instruments and/or their unwillingness to address certain dimensions thereof, such as equal access to employment opportunities, render the issue much more invidious.

Along with the evident gender inequalities to which women are subjected, women face in daily life various inequalities, though we may not sometimes notice them. In this context, the gender stereotypical upbringing that defines the choices of girls beforehand diminishes equal access to education or predestines that girls will primarily be the one responsible to raise their kids in the future or restricts their entrance to the public sphere. Similarly, the harmful assumption that certain professions are indeed fitting or more suitable for men causes that women are prejudiced in regard to these jobs or they are paid less than men in these positions. More importantly, because of the lack of governmental subsidies, inadequate structure of healthcare systems, insufficient education opportunities for girls and women or poverty, women are deprived of safe water, healthcare facilities, obstetric services, sanitation materials and certain preventative and curative medicines especially in developing and least developed countries. Last but not the least, the disadvantaged position of women in social and professional life is also a source of concern. In many cases women are hired in the lowest paid jobs or in vulnerable forms of employment across the world. They are more likely to lose their jobs than men and this has become worse under the circumstances of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

It should be underlined that the above disparities are widespread and pervasive. Most of them can be observed even in the western countries that are mostly assumed to be well-developed.

COVID-19 and the Vision of the UN on the Participation of Women in Public Life

The UN Women has specified the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day as “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 ”. As the world is looking forward to hearing the conclusive success of the struggle against the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, we witness that women are involved in this endeavor in the first line of defense as medical workers, 70% of whom globally are comprised of them. By this virtue, the current crisis revealed the central contributions and heavy burden of women at all stages of the response to and recovery from the pandemic. On this occasion, the UN organs bring to attention the importance on 'advancing women’s leadership and participation in decision-making’ as an integral component of all efforts.

Against this backdrop, UN Women recognizes that ‘the world needs women at every table where decisions are being made’. Furthermore, it argues that women’s full and effective participation in all areas of life will bring about progress for everyone. The latest report of the UN Secretary General on women’s participation in public life indicates that only 22 states have female heads of state or government, women occupy 21% of ministerial positions globally, the proportion of female parliamentarians in national assemblies is only 25% and they are widely underrepresented in the public sector’s decision making processes. Accordingly, it concludes that women are insufficiently consulted or included in decision-making on a variety of issues and this fact leaves the governments ill-equipped to respond to crises. With a view to achieving gender parity in the public sphere, the report suggests introduction of quotas, intensification of efforts for reform to make women engage more in public life or civil society organizations of women, eradication of violence against women and rehabilitation programs to change social norms amounting to impediments to participation of women.

Outlook of Turkey Regarding Gender Equality

Turkey has already ratified several international human rights treaties including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the European Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (İstanbul Convention). Thus, it has several international commitments to ameliorate the status of women in every field of life, to accord equal rights to them and to prevent violence against women. In parallel, it has also enacted a number of laws or amended the existing legislation to address discrimination against women in civil, professional and social life and to lay down necessary provisions on criminal and judicial matters. So, it could reasonably be suggested that it has sound legislation to meet gender parity targets. On the other hand, an apposite legislation does not mean much in a state where the rule of law no longer prevails and arbitrariness predominantly reigns. In other words, the mentality of the incumbent government and state of affairs in Turkey constitute factual impediments to ensure equality of men and women. One can also fairly argue that despite the existence of substantial social demand for equal rights to women in the country, the ideological approach of the ruling AKP is too far from accommodating this expectation.

As one examines the existence of women in public positions of decision-making in Turkey, this gives a sufficient picture pertaining the stance of the government on the issue. Currently only 2 out of the 17 (11.7%) cabinet members, 101 out of 585 (17%) member of parliaments and only 25% of all public employees are women. Apart from the overall picture, the portion and ranks of the female officers in Turkish Foreign Service, which is assumed to be the most modern and progressive public institution in Turkey, are also indicative of the best efforts in the country to diminish the gender inequality. Based on the figures shared by Anatolian News Agency, 688 out of 1921 (35.8%) foreign service officers, 64 out of 257 (24.9%) ambassadors, 9 out of 28 (32.1%) Director Generals, 16 out 53 (30.1%) Deputy Director Generals and 12 out of 85 (14%) General Consuls are female. In addition, it is also a fact that Turkey has never appointed a female ambassador to certain key representations like embassies in London, Washington, Moscow or permanent missions to the UN (New York) and NATO. Therefore, it is obvious that decision-making positions in Turkey and staff of the public sector are largely male-dominated.

More important than the abovementioned figures is the high rate of the cases of violence against women in Turkey. Every single day, a new appalling media article appears regarding the women beaten or murdered by men. Video footage or pictures of these incidents have also been shared in social media and the Turkish public condemns the perpetrators as well as negligent officials. “The ‘We Will End Femicide’ Platform” reports that, throughout 2020, 300 femicides were committed and 171 suspicious female deaths were recorded in Turkey. Some commentators suggest that the deficiencies in autopsies on bodies of femicide victims and lax judicial investigations into these indicate that these cases are being covered up. Besides, in many instances, Turkish judiciary or government officials shared intimidating public statements against Turkish public who questions the breeding grounds of femicides, deficiencies of respective policies and of measures of the government and political affiliations of the suspects. Consequently, it can be justly argued that such an atmosphere generates an impunity culture that frustrates the preventive measures for violence against women. Accordingly, we can fairly conclude that Turkey is not compliant with its commitments stemming from the İstanbul Convention due to its inadequate measures to eliminate violence against women. This indicates that the AKP government is unwilling or unable to discharge ‘its obligations to protect and fulfill’ under respective human rights treaties. What makes this situation more flagrant is a rumor and the widespread social media sharings by supporters of the ruling party on the fact that the AKP government is actually planning to withdraw from the İstanbul Convention. A statement of AKP Deputy-Head Numan Kurtulmuş is also liable to confirm the said intention of the AKP: “The signing of the Istanbul Convention was really wrong. ... When our people has such an expectation, we cannot stay indifferent to this. As we have duly signed it, then it would be possible to duly withdraw from it”.

Lastly, the insanity era in Turkey, which has become prevalent with the declaration of the state of emergency after the failed coup of July 15, 2016, has seriously deteriorated the human rights situation in regard to women too. Within the last five years thousands of women were accused of being terrorists due to their alleged links with the Gülen Movement based on thin evidence. Among these persons were also pregnant or recently-delivered women. Being remanded in custody, courts also declined to invoke the special statutory procedures that require the release of at least 219 women who are pregnant or with babies. Furthermore, thousands of women from diverse fractions of the society, who were under detention or visiting their jailed relatives in prisons, were subjected to strip-searches despite the lack of compelling reasons or adequate legal grounds to do so. Moreover, several pregnant or sick women, who were facing the threat of arbitrary imprisonment over their alleged links with Gülen Movement, were denied the right to benefit from medical services properly, or were treated while policemen were waiting right outside doors of hospital or surgery rooms.

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