The remains of Pinar Gültekin were found in the woodlands in Turkey’s Mugla province on July 21. The 27-year-old economics student was strangled to death in a fit of rage by her ex-boyfriend, who then burned her body. One of many tragic and preventable deaths, Gültekin’s murder sparked protests against femicide in Turkey and reached millions through social media campaigns. However, despite existing legal protections to prevent femicide, many women find themselves increasingly vulnerable to violence, unprotected and ignored by governments.
As defined by the World Bank, femicide is the “intentional murder of women because they are women.” According to the UN, 50,000 women a year die at the hands of intimate partners and family members, mainly through domestic abuse or “honor killings.” Unfortunately, as with many forms of domestic violence, COVID-19 — and the subsequent isolation and economic pressures — has increased rates of femicide across the globe. Many countries including India, South Africa and the United States have seen increases in femicide rates.
How to Fight Domestic Violence During a Global Pandemic
Even before the pandemic, there was an upward global trend in terms of femicide rates over the last several years. Approximately 87,000 women died by femicide in 2017, and the UN has recorded an average 30% increase in reporting of domestic violence in 2020 due to the pandemic. In total, the global cost of violence against women and girls is estimated to be around $1.5 trillion, or 2% of the global GDP on a yearly basis. Femicide has damaging effects on all levels of society, but, first and foremost, action needs to be taken against femicide to prevent further victimization of women and girls.
In order to effectively mitigate femicide, three main policies have been endorsed by international organizations. These include laws and legal frameworks that specifically forbid femicide and allocate resources toward domestic violence prevention; education and community outreach that is inclusive of women but also engages men and boys; and support, including law enforcement and other social service agencies, that women can safely report violence to in order to prevent further aggression.
However, the problem remains that while many countries do have legislation on the books and are signatories of agreements that call for an end to violence against women, these laws are simply not enforced. Thus, the reality is that women are vulnerable to violence with few protections, and those they have are at risk of being eroded. Because of the public outrage over Pinar Gültekin’s death, Turkey is one of the most notable examples of femicide in 2020.
Turkey was the first country to ratify the Istanbul Convention in 2012. The convention is intended to promote gender equality and reduction of violence against women through a series of prevention, protection and persecution strategies aimed at both victims and perpetrators. However, despite the fact that many elements of the convention now exist in national legislation, Ankara announced that it would consider withdrawing from the convention, citing “harm to the family institution and promotion of homosexuality.”
Many feminist advocates see the problem as emerging long before this potential withdrawal because, contrary to the laws in place, the government admitted to not keeping records of women killed by femicide. The feminist platform We Will Stop Femicide began record-keeping after this announcement, and reported that 474 women were killed in Turkey in 2019, the highest in a decade during which murder rates of women have increased year on year.
In light of this disparity between law and practice, community action is one of the most visible methods to force public recognition of women’s issues that can lead to further policy implementation. A pivotal moment in second wave feminism was Iceland’s 1975 “Day Off,” where women forwent work and household labor to join in mass protests against unequal pay. This widespread movement ultimately led to the restructuring of many gendered laws in Iceland and offered other women’s rights activists an effective example on which to draw.
More recently, many activists have organized mass protests against femicide. Many of these occur on International Women’s Day, March 8. One particularly active region of anti-violence protest is Latin America, which is home to some of the highest femicide rates in the world. In response to President Sebastian Pinera’s nonchalant reaction to over 130,000 women reporting sexual abuse per year in Chile, feminist activists staged protests that led to global popularization of the anti-rape anthem, “A Rapist in Your Path.”
Similarly, women across Mexico participated in a 24-hour strike to protest the increasingly graphic murders of women around the country. While Mexican authorities reported 1,010 femicides in 2019, feminist advocacy groups say that the number of women killed is underrepresented.
Social Activism Alongside Policy
Social movements are critical for garnering attention and support but can be easily co-opted without meaningful change. The hashtag #ChallegeAccepted was originally used by Turkish women as a way to honor Pinar Gültekin and prevent future femicides, but after its adaptation by Western celebrities, the original intention dissolved into one of female friendships and “sisterhood.” Similar to the Blackout Tuesday media campaign, when the #BlackLivesMatter feed was overrun with black squares that quashed the voices of those it was intended to uplift, the degeneration of #ChallengedAccepted undermined its ability to promote meaningful change and address femicide.
Therefore, social activism needs to occur alongside policy reform. When the voices of the people are included in legislation, the framework to implement anti-violence campaigns becomes more tangible and effective. In addressing femicide at government level, the short, mid and long-term expectations must be defined.
In the short term, countries must ensure that women and children have adequate support to report and escape abuse, especially in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. The effects of the pandemic will only continue to increase risk factors that include unemployment, problematic alcohol use, mental health problems and reductions in government social spending in areas such as health and education. Having more responders available and ensuring more temporary safe spaces are accessible is key to reducing violence and femicide in the immediate future.
Within the next six months, countries should have drafted updated long-term anti-violence plans that incorporate the effects of COVID-19 into existing legislation and propose methods to fully implement it. If the country has gaps in existing protections, it would be beneficial to work in tandem with local women’s organizations as well as with the chapters of international organizations that can report back on the state of women’s affairs and offer improvements to legal protections. In the case of Turkey, it is vital that existing protections and legislation for women are not removed. The removal of protective legislation can create immediate backlash and unrest among women and perpetrators.
In the long-term, women should have access to regular, streamlined services to turn to in cases of abuse, with particular support provided to vulnerable groups including transgender women and women in low-income brackets. Governments should maintain standardized records on violence against women. Additionally, there should be educational campaigns to inform women about access to resources, as well as initiatives to encourage gender equality, particularly those aimed at boys and men.
For perpetrators with low-level offenses, rehabilitation programs should be put in place to prevent repeat or more serious offenses. Most critically, perpetrators of femicide should be prosecuted in ways that stop the spread of violence. Removing repeat and high-level sexual violence perpetrators from the public sphere will diminish incentives for others to commit honor killings and sexual assault.
The rise of femicide is a public health hazard like any other and affects not only victims’ families but their communities, countries and the wellbeing of women across the world. At a time when preventative measures to combat femicide are obscured and governments remain passive in the face of mounting crimes against women, it is necessary for the public to speak out in unison against gendered violence and hold governments accountable for their actions.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.