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Combating Violence Against Women During the Coronavirus Outbreak – Monitoring Report

By 21 January 2021No Comments

This report is submitted by Mor Çatı Women’s Shelter Foundation & Women for Women’s Human Rights – New Ways to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Ms. Dubravka Šimonović vis-à-vis her questions regarding the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women’s right to a life free from violence.

  1. To what extent has there been an increase of violence against women, especially domestic violence in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns? Please provide all available data on the increase of violence against women, including domestic violence and femicides, registered during the COVID-19 crisis.

In Turkey, the government does not produce and disseminate any data regarding domestic violence and femicides.

Despite the lack of official data, several reports have been published in national and international media issuing the increase in violence against women since the beginning of the pandemic. With this growing emphasis, the inevitable prevalent public conviction was that violence against women increased due to the pandemic. It was true that women had to spend more time at home alone with violent men, where they could have been exposed to violence for 24 hours. However, as women’s organizations who provide direct support to women, we were worried that this conviction would lead to a perception that the domestic violence cases are due to the exceptional circumstances of pandemic and the historicity and persistence of violence against women in Turkey would be concealed. Based on our observations and experiences with women during the pandemic period, we were informed that women had limited access to support mechanisms they would need in case they attempted to escape from violence. Pandemic conditions deepened the already existing implementation problems of the violence prevention mechanisms. We observed that the pandemic was used by the law enforcement officials, including police officers, gendarmerie, prosecutors etc., as an excuse for breaking the law. Women were not accepted to the shelters due to the lack of capacity and they were misinformed by the police forces to prevent them from applying to the shelter. The police forces did not implement the article that gives women the right to remove the perpetrator from the house. We observed an increase in the applications from young single women who had to return to their family homes following the closure of their workplaces and student dormitories and experienced violence by their family members. They, too, encountered deterrent behavior by the police forces who used pandemic as an excuse to convince them to remain at the house where they were under attack. Although such practices were not new in this field, considering the lack of social support during the pandemic, women who experience violence faced much heavier pressure to stay in the violent environment.

  1. Are helplines run by Government and/or civil society available? Has there been an increase in the number of calls in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic?

ALO 183 Hotline and KADES Mobile Phone Application: Regarding hotlines, there is no emergency hotline provided solely for women in Turkey. Rather, there is one single line, ALO 183, which offers general social support to diverse groups including families, disabled people, elderly people, close relatives of martyrs and stray animals. As might be expected, due to the overload during the pandemic, ALO 183 was not very accessible for women, as reported by many women’s organizations. In other words, it was not possible for many to reach the hotline even after several attempted calls and long wait times. In some cases when women were able to reach the hotline, ALO 183 employees directed women to Mor Çatı with the claim that Mor Çatı would ‘provide a better support’. The fact that they had to refer to a women’s organization rather than public institutions has revealed the burn-out of the workers in the collapsed system. The Ministry has recently announced that a new WhatsApp account was created as part of ALO 183. However, as independent women’s organizations we were not given any information about the capacity and functioning of this new line.

There is also a mobile phone application called KADES which was active since before the pandemic. It enables women who experience violence to make an emergency call to the police with one click. This application was effective during the pandemic, especially under quarantine conditions. However, there were circumstances that the application crashed due to technical problems and in other cases, the police officers came to the women’s house but did not file the women’s complaints or they misinformed the applicants and tried to convince them to stay in the violent environment. In a few cases, the police could not even take the call because the police emergency hotline 155 also crashed due to overload and women who experience violence could not reach the police forces via 155 either.

Data regarding the number of the calls: In Turkey, the government does not produce and disseminate any data regarding domestic violence.

Mor ÇatıData: Between March 16th (the date Mor Çatı staff shifted to remote work) and June 1st (the official start of “normalization” in Turkey), the number of women who called us for the first time is 286. In this period, we conducted 540 interviews in total and 479 were with women who called us for the first time. This data shows a slight increase compared with the number of first calls around the same period of the previous year (279 first calls in March-May 2019). As mentioned above, we underline that domestic violence in Turkey did not start during the pandemic and the pandemic should not be seen as ‘the main cause’ of violence against women. However, the pandemic conditions deepened the already existing problems in the implementation of the violence prevention mechanisms. Women had greater difficulty in exercising their rights than before and reached out to us with such complaints. In cases where women had adequate amount of relevant information regarding their rights, they were not able to practice these rights because the responsible authority that was supposed to address women’s concerns did not work properly. Women who would be able to meet their own needs by themselves without any support called us more than before for these issues around enforcement.

  1. Can women victims of domestic violence be exempted from restrictive measures to stay at home in isolation if they face domestic violence?

Coronavirus lockdown restrictions were implemented for short periods, mainly in the weekends and holidays and mostly applied in certain cities including all the metropoles and certain other provinces. Lockdown measures, exceptions and rules specific to certain sections of the society were announced via circulars, mostly at the last minute, and the rules were revised frequently. These circulars did not include any clarification about whether women who experience domestic violence were exempt from these restrictions. Although women had the opportunity to call for a police officer either to go to the police station or to the hospital, lack of clear and specific terms in the circulars regarding domestic violence and women’s needs indicated that these issues were not taken into account by the relevant authorities. Although it was a crystal clear responsibility of the government to put women’s safety on their agenda during the pandemic period and make all the necessary public announcements to inform women about their rights and guide them about procedures to be followed in case they experience domestic violence, unfortunately there was no such announcement and the women’s organizations were burdened with filling this gap via their social media announcements.

  1. Are shelters open and available? Are there any alternatives to shelters available if they are closed or without sufficient capacity?

During the pandemic, the women’s shelters are open but not accessible. And there are no alternatives to shelters offered to women wishing to move away from violence.

The problems already faced in admissions to the shelters have aggravated and become more severe during the mentioned period. The pandemic became an excuse for the malpractices in existing mechanisms.

By going against the Law, the women who experienced any type of violence other than physical violence were not accepted to the shelters and no alternative was provided to them.  On 3rd April 2020, a statement titled “Additional Measures Against Coronavirus in Women’s Guesthouses” was published on the General Directorate of the Status of Women (KSGM) (that is affiliated with the Ministry of Family, Labor and Social Services) website. This statement covered information about the health conditions and disinfection in shelters. It stated that no one was accepted to the shelters except the women whose lives were at risk. The applicant women were asked for a health report as the proof of imminent threat of violence. By this requisition, the Ministry violated the Law No. 6284 and the Regulation on the Opening and Operation of Women’s Guesthouses. According to Law No. 6284, shelters are defined as “the places where women who are subjected to physical, emotional, sexual, economic and verbal abuse or violence are protected from violence, and where women can stay temporarily in order to strengthen themselves by meeting their own needs and by solving their psycho-social and economic problems, if any” and no evidence can be requested to be able to have a stay. Despite the definition of all types of violence mentioned in the Law, women exposed to non-physical violence were not accepted into the shelter.

Another information given by the statement was that women who were not accepted to the shelter would be temporarily inhabited in alternative social facilities. However, the information we received from women who applied for these alternatives as well as from women who worked at the Violence Prevention Monitoring Centers (ŞÖNİM) showed that neither law enforcement officers nor the Violence Prevention Monitoring Centers (ŞÖNİM) officers were aware of the existence of this practice and they did not guide women properly in this regard.

Unlawful criteria were imposed on women who applied to stay in shelters. During the pandemic, women who are about to be accepted to a shelter were inquired about their official city of residence and those whose residences were in another province were not allowed to accommodate in the shelter they applied for. In addition to that, while ŞÖNİMs claimed that women would not  begin their stay in the shelters without taking a corona test, we were informed by the applicants that the police did not accompany them in the hospital and those who did not have the chance to wait alone in the hospitals could not benefit from shelters by ŞÖNİMs because they did not have test results. No support was offered for those women to be tested. Women applying to shelters for their need for housing were not taken to the shelters, and no alternative solutions were made available regarding this urgent need.

Deterrent behavior and bad practices by the law enforcement towards women who applied to shelter. We learned that women were misinformed in the law enforcement units where vast majority of all applications for shelters were received, and they were exposed to deterrent malpractices by police officers using the pandemic as an excuse for not putting their applications into process.

The rules in shelters and shelters’ current conditions caused additional difficulties on the lives of women who were able to stay in the shelter. In Turkey, in public shelters, means of communication are not allowed to women. The restrictions on communication (such as forbidding mobile phones, limiting internet access) in public shelters made the situation all the more difficult for women who stayed in the public shelters in pandemic conditions when face to face communication opportunities are already very limited. These restrictions which are already basic human rights violations became even more unwarranted during the pandemic.

Women were not admitted to the shelters on the ground that the shelters were full. Turning away women from shelters because of full capacity shows the insufficiency of shelters in Turkey. Municipalities with a population of more than 100,000 people are obliged to open new shelters according to the law. However, no sanctions applied to those that do not respect this obligation. We have learned that in some cities, since ŞÖNİM did not accept women in shelters, municipal shelters were also not able to accept women. It was even stated that as ŞÖNİM did not accept the women, police tried to direct the women applying for shelter to the municipalities but this turned into a vicious circle because in Turkey the municipalities are legally obliged to accept women only through ŞÖNİM. In addition, we learnt that in some metropolitan and district municipalities where trustees have been appointed unlawfully, the municipality owned shelters turned away all applications at all due to pandemic protection measures and lack of personnel.

There was no emergency action plan for women and no transparency. No information was provided to the public in the beginning of the process regarding the health conditions in the shelters. In the first week of documented Covid-19 cases in Turkey (March 16th), we contacted the General Directorate of the Status of Women (KSGM) (that is affiliated with the Ministry of Family, Labor and Social Services). During our calls, we were informed that ‘the necessary precautions’ were taken against the spread of the virus. However, we could not access the information about what measures ŞÖNİMs took. While some officials said that numerous coronavirus tests were made, others underlined that it was not possible to test each and every applicant. We called the Governorship of Istanbul to get some information about their work during pandemic but we couldn’t reach them. Very limited information we could get during our contact with the KSGM showed us that the Ministry did not work transparently and did not have an emergency action plan.

  1. Are protection orders available and accessible in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The protection orders were not available and accessible in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Contrarily, the Council of Judges and Prosecutors announced a Circular on 30th March 2020, titled “Additional Measures in the Scope of COVID-19” and this statement dictated that the health risks for the perpetrators during the pandemic should be considered while the protection orders were to be provided. This statement exposed the fact that the safety and health of the perpetrators were seen prior to the health and safety of the women who were subjected to violence. Several independent women’s organizations including Mor Çatı challenged this statement and asked for its withdrawal. However, our attempts failed. As of June 2020, this statement is still being used as an excuse to avoid issuing protection orders by the relevant public authorities.

  1. What are the impacts on women’s access to justice? Are courts open and providing protection and decisions in cases of domestic violence?

The Council of Judges and Prosecutors took some precautions against the pandemic risk by declaring a Circular dated March 30, 2020. It was announced that all legal actions except trials on imprisonment of persons have been temporarily suspended until 15th June 2020. During this period, all courthouses were closed, accordingly. It was also observed that the trials of some cases were postponed to September 2020 and later. Failure to hold non-urgent hearings caused an increase in the length of trial periods. As women’s organizations providing direct support to women who experience violence, we know that the prolongation of trial periods has negative impacts on women’s access to justice. If the judicial system had been designed to allow remote hearings through an audio-visual information system, as a precaution against such extraordinary situations, the delays could have been kept to a minimum.

During this period, according to the Law No. 6284 on the Protection of the Family and the Prevention of Violence Against Women, the Courts continued to operate and to make decisions regarding requests for preventive and protective measures. However, in order to have access to their rights for preventive and protective measures, women have to have a lawyer who can access to the online system (UYAP) which permits accession by lawyers only. The women without a lawyer can neither file lawsuits on the online system nor send any additional petitions attached to their existing files. In order to request and receive the necessary preventive measures, the women had three options: to physically go to the courthouse, to hire a lawyer (or apply to a Bar Association for free legal aid, if they do not have the necessary income), or to apply to the law enforcement officials.

However, based on our experiences, we know that the law enforcement officials frequently provide false information to women. We also know that most of the Bar Associations do not provide free legal aid to women requesting preventive and protective measures. They only provide support for divorce, alimony and custody. And even then, they expect women to meet  poverty criteria and request several documentations that  put additional burden on women. Besides, during the pandemic, legal aid offices of some of the Bar Associations were completely closed, and in several other provinces, the office staff were working alternately. They did not have any hotlines exclusive to women who experience violence, with well-equipped staff who can actively listen to the applicant women and provide all the necessary legal information. These deficiencies and malfunctioning caused additional difficulties in terms of women’s access to justice under the pandemic circumstances.

  1. What are the impacts of the current restrictive measures and lockdowns on women’s access to health services? Please specify whether services are closed or suspended, particularly those focusing on reproductive health.

In Turkey, women cannot access to abortion in practice, even though it is guaranteed by the law. With the circumstances of the pandemic, women’s access to their reproductive rights has become more restricted. The public hospitals used the pandemic as an excuse to deny women’s rights to abortion. In one case, a woman who lived in a city other than Istanbul called Mor Çatı when she was denied her demand for abortion and only after putting pressure upon the relevant authorities in that specific hospital, she was able to get an abortion.

In addition to abortion, there are no free contraceptives and morning-after pills which must be provided by the Family Health Centers in Turkey. Especially during the pandemic, this lack of support has emerged as a significant need. While restricting women’s access to birth control methods, forcing sexual intercourse (rape) are common forms of violence in Turkey, there has been a risk of an increase during the pandemic. For this reason, necessary measures should have been taken to ensure that women could comfortably complain and prevent pregnancy.

In regards to women’s psychological health, because there were no online psychological support mechanisms established before the pandemic in order to provide support to women who experience violence, women’s access to psychological health services were also restricted during the pandemic. However, there have been a few good examples. Some municipalities have provided psychological support to women over the phone or sent social aid to women living alone.

  1. Please provide examples of obstacles encountered to prevent and combat domestic violence during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

The practices by the law enforcement officials create major obstacles for preventing and combating domestic violence in Turkey. Before the pandemic, police would send women home saying: “We can’t do anything”. But especially during the pandemic, we learned that women were not even taken to the hospital for a physical examination, they were not informed about their rights or the police used deterrent statements to push women to return home. We saw that bad implementations deteriorated during the pandemic. The police used statements such as “There is a pandemic, 15 people come here every day, stay away”. They even tried to convince women to give up their complaints. They misinformed them by saying that the shelters were closed. And they discouraged them by saying that the shelters were at high health risk. According to the information obtained from the applicants in this process, the police gave false information about the protection orders, saying “you have to go to the governor’s office”, even though this was not true. Another example of the wrong and dissuasive information given to women was that the protection order in accordance with the Law No. 6284 could only be obtained from the police station in the district where they resided. We witnessed that women were forced to run around different police stations. The police easily turned women down without offering any solution or creating an alternative.

In addition to that, the deterrent behavior and false information provided by the officials of the district governorships, the provincial directorates of the Ministry of Family, Labor and Social Services and municipal authorities caused a major obstacle for women to get away from violence. According to the Law No. 6284, women have a right to apply to these authorities for social support. However, during the pandemic, women shared with us that even though they applied to these institutions, and in many cases more than once, they were either not responded or denied without any reason. Women who gained their right for social support before the pandemic were not able to access their rights. The amount allocated for social support to women was easily shifted to other areas during the pandemic by using the pandemic as an excuse to deny women their rights. Women also were turned down by these institutions by being given false information about their rights.

  1. Please provide examples of good practices to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence and to combat other gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic by Governments.

In Turkey, the Government did not implement any good practices to prevent and combat violence against women and other gendered impacts of Covid-19. We, as the independent women’s organizations, organized campaigns, online meetings and other gatherings to collectively demand an emergency action plan specifically on the issue of violence against women, however neither the Ministry nor the Government responded to our call.

Only a few municipalities in Istanbul, the metropolitan municipality of Istanbul and municipalities of some other cities directed attention to the issue of violence against women and shared information regarding hotlines and support mechanisms. And again, only a few of them provided online social and psychological support to women. And the metropolitan municipality of Istanbul announced the opening of a new shelter named Women’s Solidarity House where women who did not have any kind of safety risk anymore and who were ready to enter the workforce could stay.

  1. Please provide examples of good practices to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence and to combat other gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic by NGOs and NHRIs or equality bodies.

Under current circumstances, since the Government did not come up with any emergency action plan and take any action to combat violence against women, women’s organizations had to undertake more responsibility, even though it was beyond their power and ability. As a result of this process, the cooperation and solidarity between women’s organizations were enhanced very effectively and actively. With the skills that we, as women’s organizations, have developed so far, we immediately managed to work collaboratively in these times of crisis. While the coordination among different state institutions was lacking, we worked in solidarity to compensate that lack.

One of the writers of this report, Mor Çatı continued its activities at its shelter and solidarity center. We continued to have online meetings and interviews with the women staying in the shelter since the beginning of the outbreak. We continued to receive phone and email applications in our usual schedule. We shared the experiences of women who receive support by phone or email from us on a daily basis through our social media accounts and monthly through our contact accounts and through press bulletins. We continued to organize social media campaigns to create awareness regarding violence against women and the necessary support mechanisms for women. We organized a campaign with more than 150 local women’s organizations to call for an emergency action plan. We continued with collecting data, monitoring the implementation of the laws and recording them with our reports. We used the Right to Information Act to ask the Government regarding the measures to combat violence against women.

The other writer of this report, Women for Women’s Human Rights, WWHR, has conducted a new research study entitled “Study to Assess the Impact of COVID-19 on Women’s Rights” in Turkey. The study mainly focuses on the impact of COVID-19 on the daily life experiences of women and correspondingly on women’s rights in Turkey, by interviewing with a total of 1500 women from various provinces of Turkey on how different groups of women are experiencing the pandemic and the strategies they created to cope with its effects. The research process recently has come to the end and the final report is expected to be published by mid-July, in Turkish and English.

Like Mor Çatı, we used social media effectively during the pandemic by organizing social media campaigns on especially women’s legal rights attacked by politicians. We, with Mor Çatı, lead the campaign with more than 150 local women’s and LGBTI+ organizations to call for an emergency action plan. Also, we published excerpts from our booklet series titled “We Have Rights!”  on social media which are a package of booklets on legal rights, sexual rights, reproductive rights and economic rights, to disseminate information on how to access women’s rights during the pandemic.

  1. Please send any additional information on the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on domestic violence against women not covered by the questions above.

The poverty of women, combined with lack of any support for them, forces them to stay in violent environments. During Covid-19 crisis with the increase of women’s poverty, women found it more difficult to leave the house and to start their own independent and violence-free lives. Many women who reached to us and to other women’s organizations asked for financial support. We witness that attacks against women’s alimony rights, which systematically intensified since 2018, have continued during the pandemic. Campaigns demanding to remove and/or put a time limit on women’s alimony rights, conducted by government-oriented organizations referring mainly to religious arguments, have been used by the Government to create an alleged public need on this issue, despite the fact that researches and surveys proved that vast majority of the society thinks that alimony rights of women are  precious and intangible for women and children. Although it is not officially set up for now since the Government is not in a dialogue with independent women’s rights organizations, we know that the Government plans to amend women’s alimony rights at the first possible opportunity.

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