Names and faces of responsibility

Local elections next weekend provide a time to reflect on what the government has done to improve the lives of women and what it needs to do better.

A lack of viable alternatives by opposition parties combined with the ruling Justice and Development Party’s, or AKP’s, unaccountable use of state resources and contract bidding to back their own interests have cemented the party’s dominance for years to come. They will add more local power this month to a 47 percent popular vote in the 2006 national elections that lent them 63 percent control in Parliament. As in any healthy democracy, such power deserves intense scrutiny.

In 2008 the new social security law created an incentive to hire women. When an employer hires a woman, the government covers the social security payments for the first year. Aside from this bit of job stimulus and general fulfillment of the duty to raise the standard of living for unemployed women, AKP leaders have openly blocked progress for women. With people rapidly losing jobs, urging women to be submissive mothers of three or more children, as the prime minister did last year, is like covering a fire with oil.

Domestic violence seems to be the only "women’s problem" this government will consistently address. And they don’t do it well. A recent report that found four in 10 women in Turkey are beaten by their husbands also revealed that 90 percent of those women do not report the abuses to any authority. When the Prime Ministry released the report this month, not a word was uttered about the sources of the problem: a weakened economy, a patriarchal society and a structure that lacks the tools to stop the abuse. Nor was man’s hand in the matter mentioned.

Instead, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in his speech marking International Women’s Day this month, "We have to cherish women because they are our mothers." He offered no other reason.

With no infrastructure, victims of domestic violence often have no place to go. With no real enforcement or rehabilitation, nor do their abusers. These are not cultural problems. It starts with nuts and bolts: Rehabilitate men who hurt women, lock up others and amend laws that let men off when the court perceives "provocation" by the victims. This is the government’s responsibility.

Backlash is violent business

Women fought and won huge success a few years ago on a penal code that had treated them as subhuman. Since then this government has pushed to place women in "protection" rather than equality in their ongoing draft constitution. In 1998 the country's Constitutional Court finally overturned a law that made adultery a crime only for women. But as recently as 2007, AKP members of Parliament pushed to revive the law. Both the prime minister and the president were outspoken in favor of it before EU accession talks made it too hot to handle. Their tone is consistent with their party’s intentional and systematic dismantling of women’s progress in this country.

Last month, AKP ministers blocked the new Gender Equality Committee in Parliament in the final hour, changing its name, and thus its aim under the law, to Equality of Opportunity. The change means women cannot legally demand of the prime minister or of Parliament quotas or special precautions in employment.

Good news for the people, bad news for a social state guaranteed by the Constitution: Hope for Turkey’s women remains in the hands of citizens and women’s groups who despite the odds bring about change on the local and national level. A new Women’s Platform against Sexual Violence met at Garajistanbul Wednesday and turned their attention to muhtars, the top official in each neighborhood. With better resources and information, they would have tools to provide real help. Muhtars know their responsibilities by name.

Can women continue to overcome the wave of government backlash? They can because they are productive by nature, wanting better for themselves and their children. In Turkey their progress is rounding every corner.
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