Spotlight on Turkey: Women on the ground discuss growing crisis, threats

June 29 Update: The death toll continues to rise in the aftermath of a deadly suicide attack Tuesday night at Turkey’s Istanbul Ataturk Airport, with the latest estimates that 41 people are dead and more than 200 wounded. This attack is the latest in at least a dozen deadly attacks carried out by extremist groups throughout Turkey in the past year, amid growing domestic and regional tensions. The New York Times reports that the majority of victims in Tuesday’s attack appear to be Muslims and that more than half of the victims were Turkish, with other victims and survivors from around the world.

Global Fund for Women condemns this senseless violence. We stand in solidarity with our sisters and partners in Istanbul and throughout Turkey—bold women leaders and women’s groups who are continuing to advance human rights and fearlessly calling for peace.

“Today, we’re grieving with our sisters and all of the people in Istanbul and throughout Turkey. But while grieving, we should not forget that it is during times like these that we should intensify our support and solidarity, and not give way to fatalism,” says Zahra Vieneuve, Program Officer for Middle East and North Africa at Global Fund for Women. “We believe today more than ever that it is the women human rights defenders, the women peace activists, and the women leaders throughout Turkey to whom we should direct our support. Today we are grieving but tomorrow we should again ask them ‘what do you need?’ and be ready to respond to their calls.”

April 27, 2016

“In Cizre [a majority Kurdish city in southeastern Turkey bordering Syria] people are now homeless and left without shelters. They lost everything. They are now staying with other families. A lot of women are homeless, significantly adding to their vulnerability. They are sleeping in the streets. These past seven months have cost a lot of people and lives. There is no accountability.  

We are really alone. I was writing less before this new conflict erupted but now I have to write more. No one else is writing about what is happening to us.

We need support but we also need solidarity. We need people to write about this, to inform the world of what is happening. We need people to talk about peace—everyone is talking about the war, we should talk about peace. Every voice is valuable.” – Nurcan Baysal

Over the past few months, Turkey has been on edge. The country has been the target of three deadly suicide attacks carried out by extremists including one explosion that killed five at the end of March in Istanbul, its bustling city of 14 million, as well as two suicide bombings in the capital, Ankara. The attacks, which have heightened security anxieties, add another layer to an already tense situation—political turmoil in the country has been building since the June 2015 parliamentary elections, against a back-drop of rising tensions over closing the border to Syrian refugees, and an existing on-and-off conflict between Turkish forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ party, or PKK.

As this complex situation intensifies, women and girls are experiencing unique challenges and carrying the brunt of conflict. Human rights and freedom of expression are under threat, while rates of sexual violence and harassment are rising, and women’s access to critical health care and education is limited. Global Fund for Women’s advisors and grantee partners in Turkey have shared troubling updates from on the ground, including during our face-to-face meetings with them in October—just days after two suicide bombs killed 95 people at a peace rally in Ankara. In recent weeks, we spoke with sources on the ground in Istanbul, Ankara, Diyarbakir, and Cizre—most of whom asked to remain anonymous due to intense government scrutiny—to better understand the current situation in Turkey and how it is impacting women and girls.

Diyarbakir at the heart of the violence

Turkey’s southeast is the battleground for the ongoing conflict between Turkish forces and Kurdish forces, which erupted again in July after a two-and-a-half-year ceasefire collapsed. While the roots of the conflict 30 years ago were seeded in demands for Kurdish independence, it is now focused on greater autonomy and rights for the Kurdish people, the largest ethnic minority in Turkey. The conflict is often overlooked by Turkish and regional media, a fact that many believe is because of the deep discrimination against and hostility toward the Kurdish people in Turkey. Many also believe that the European Union has turned a blind eye to the situation because of its March agreement with Turkey about refugees. In the most recent flare-up of fighting in the southeast, many of the casualties have been civilians rather than special forces, raising questions about the humanitarian situation in these conflict areas as bombings and violence reportedly target Kurdish civilians, including women and children.

“The Turkish government has a plan for Kurds: Destroy, rebuild, and pacify. Sources say, today, only around 1,000 of Sur’s 28,000 residents have stayed behind,” explains Nevin Oztop, Global Fund for Women’s advisor. “The government’s master plan of war is nothing less than an attempt to tear apart local residents from their historically inhabited spaces, enforce economic dependency and to create people crushed into submission.”

At the heart of this conflict is Diyarbakir—also known by its Kurdish name, ‘Amed’—a large city with 7,000 years of history and its sprawling old town, Sur, which has been at the center of some of the worst violence. One woman in Diyarbakir painted a dismal picture of current life there amid the conflict: “The conflicts have been life-threatening for civilians in the neighborhoods. Children especially are very traumatized; they have serious psychological problems now. The curfews have been very long—with no electricity or water. People don’t have food or access to health services. They can’t send their children to school, because the schools have been closed. Because of all of these reasons, the civilians had to leave their houses.”

Further east in Cizre, a majority Kurdish city that borders Syria, the latest wave of violence forced people to leave their homes in order to observe 24-hour curfews—a tactic implemented by Turkish forces to displace people in order to use their homes and neighborhoods for fighting. After the end of the latest violence in February, residents were allowed to return and now have a curfew from 7:30pm to 5am, during which there is no electricity or water. What they found upon returning to Diyarbakir, as described by Global Fund for Women advisor Nurcan Baysal, was grim destruction—homes and businesses destroyed, sexist and anti-Kurdish graffiti all over homes and businesses, and dead bodies.

Baysal, one of the founders of Diyarbakir Political and Social Research Institute, described a five-story apartment building found in ruins. It was a location where special forces stayed during the military curfew. “Inside the building was a complete wreckage. It was not easy to step into the apartments from the stairs. We walk on the ruins, broken windows and trash. All the entrance doors of the apartments were destroyed. It’s such a destruction that is impossible to restore.”

Including Diyarbakir and Cizre, there are 22 total districts within seven cities with designated curfews where the presence of security forces remains heavy, and bombing and violence continues—with Kurdish civilians caught in the middle—despite a mid-March cease-fire.

Women and girls facing the brunt of the risk, increased violence and harassment

In these curfew areas, women and children are being disproportionately impacted by the conflict and lack of access to resources. There has been an increase in rape and sexual harassment, according to several sources, and with the rising levels of trauma and stress that come with the conflict, women are reportedly having more miscarriages as well as experiencing irregularities in their menstrual cycles. According to our sources, women are being turned away from hospitals and the complete lack of access to health care during curfew poses significant risks to those with existing conditions.

“Women and girls’ access to health and public services is restrained in conflict regions, and thousands of women and girls had to migrate from their homes in the southeast of Turkey,” explains our sisters at Mor Çati Kadin Siginagi Vakfi, a women’s organization in Turkey dedicated to ending violence against women. “Pregnant women have had to give birth at their homes without any medical attention, and the number of miscarriages is increasing due to trauma.”

There are a great number of humanitarian abuses, says Nurcan Baysal, including bombings that are targeting civilians, including Kurdish youth in particular. In addition, children cannot go to school in the curfew areas, as those that are within curfew areas are closed.

“As for the neighborhoods under curfew, the girls are already cannot attend their schools,” explains one woman in Diyarbakir. “Even if their schools are in locations outside the curfew, they dropped out of school because there is a risk of getting caught amongst fires or they may face problems at security checks.”

The women we spoke with further emphasized the threat of the ongoing violence in Turkey against women in particular, and how conflict and crisis is exacerbating existing gender-based violence. “We hear that women and girls are being subjected to serious harassment. The special operations police are targeting the women with verbal abuse, threats, rape, and sexual abuse,” explains our partners at Filmmor Women’s Cooperative based in Istanbul, adding that “child abuse and violence against women are increasing.”

Our sources tell us that there is a great deal of sexist graffiti targeting Kurdish women in Cizre and Diyarbakir, as well as other curfew areas. While many women see sexist messages as the norm, they also say that they see increasing numbers of defamatory photos of Kurdish women on social media. They also point to a few specific, graphic instances of special forces “using women’s bodies as a messaging tool in this war”, including one time special forces reportedly raped a Turkish woman in Cizre and posted photos of her naked, brutally beaten body on social media. Nevin Oztop further emphasizes this disturbing reality, saying that photos of Kurdish women are “all over the Internet”—many of whom are naked, have been brutally beaten and raped, and left in the streets.

“Women are exposed to violence by state, by police, by their husbands, by men whom they are familiar with, and by men whom they don’t know. The mechanisms that could stop [this] violence have to be established and implemented by state. However, instead of fighting against violence, the state itself creates and uses violence,” explains women leaders of Mor Çati. “Therefore, the role of women’s organizations becomes more important at this point. The urgent need is not only to provide humanitarian aid for women and children to meet their basic needs but also to create new sustainable policies for women and children who are subjected to violence and to pressure the government to change its attitudes by targeting human rights of citizens and refugees.”

Clampdown on those demanding peace and human rights defenders

Beyond southeast Turkey, throughout the country, women on the ground reveal a crackdown on freedom of expression, freedom of the press, security of human rights activists, and new targeting of women’s groups and civil society organizations. Most recently, the government has changed its definition of ‘terrorism’, allowing for investigations into people or organizations for nearly any reason or suspicion, specifically targeting journalists, lawmakers, and activists. In announcing this, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said there was no difference between “a terrorist holding a gun or a bomb and those who use their position and pen to serve the aims” of terrorism.

“The definition of terrorism has indeed already changed in practice,” explains Aysun Sayin. “Now, your opinion can be an act of terrorism.”

Tens of thousands of women march through Taksim, Istanbul, Turkey to mark International Women's Day on March 8 amid government crackdown. (Credit: Filmmor Women's Cooperative)

International Women’s Day 2016 in Istanbul, March 8 (credit: Filmmor)

In recent months, people and groups calling for peace have been arrested, threatened, or fired from their jobs. In January, over 1,000 academics—including professors and assistant professors—signed an online petition calling for peace. Twenty-one of these people were detained, while many others were dismissed by their universities, fined, or are under official investigation by the government.  The online declaration, which also called for an end to the curfews, has been hacked and blocked in Turkey.

“Basic human rights are suspended in Turkey—security of life, freedom of the press, freedom of expression are in danger. Thousands of people had to migrate from their homes,” explains one woman who spoke with us in confidence from Istanbul. “Lawyers, academics, journalists, and many other people got arrested or are on trial. Even to call for peace is considered as crime. The war is expanding all over the country.”

For women’s groups and women human rights defenders in particular, there are heightened concerns that the evolving context could impact the women’s movement in Turkey. Due to the crackdown on freedom of expression, women’s groups feel increasingly fearful about continuing their work, and conscious that their voices are becoming more marginalized.

“There is a concrete decrease in the number of meetings that the government has invited women’s organizations to, to discuss new policies and laws, or women’s issues,” explains our sisters at Mor Çati. “When they do invite us, they do not give [the same level of] importance to the opinions and ideas of women’s organizations. The opinions are considered less by the government compared with before.”

In particular, one of our partners emphasized the need for women’s groups to be able to work with the government to advocate for a change to the impunity of perpetrators of violence against women and the lack of implementation of laws about women, along with others, that create unique obstacles against women and girls.

“The atmosphere of fear has increased and will increase again,” says Aysun Sayin, one of Global Fund for Women’s advisors based in Turkey. “A few years ago, we could come together, talk together, and work together. Today that is no longer the case.”

Sayin and others add that there is also a growing conservatism in Turkey, resulting in increased discrimination against LGBTQI people and other marginalized populations. Kaos GL and Pembe Hayat LGBTI Solidarity Association, two Global Fund for Women grantee partners that work to advance the human rights of LGBTQI populations in Turkey, just last week temporarily closed their offices in Ankara after receiving knowledge from social media about a credible security threat of an ISIS attack targeting Kaos GL and other organizations. Because Pembe Hayat does similar work to Kaos GL, they also closed their offices. According to our partners, the Turkish government has refused to acknowledge these threats or provide police or security personnel to protect offices or staff of the organizations.

Increasing security situation in Istanbul, unique risks for Syrian refugees

The suicide bombing that killed five people and injured many others on Istanbul’s main shopping street at the end of March has ignited new fears there that the ongoing conflict and increasing political turmoil in the country could bring major ramifications.

Young women at International Women's Day march in Istanbul (credit: DemocraticTurkey)

Istanbul, March 8 (DemocraticTurkey)

One young woman we spoke with who lives in Istanbul explained what life has been like since the bombing, and how security has heightened:

“Just after the bombing in Taksim, the streets were empty, literally empty. It was on a Saturday, it went on for a few days and then things went back to normal. It seems like normal, but it’s not. It’s already not been normal for a long time. Other attacks in and outside the country as well as two rounds of elections, an end to the peace talks, and ongoing war, increasing censors on press and social media, terrible increase in cases of violence against women, and the increase in the level of violence—it’s the situation we’re in. It seems normal. On the other hand, there are calls on security threats from consulates of other countries. There are news and rumors going around about possible bomb threats. There are security checks everywhere. We talk about this in our families, in our gatherings, but things continue as normal. Just as an example from my circle, people do fear. They don’t feel safe in public transportation and they may easily get scared or panicky.”

Our sources also emphasize the need to highlight the unique needs and situation of the 2.7 million Syrian refugees who are already in Turkey, as well as those who are trying to flee violence in Syria only to be turned away at Turkey’s border. While the connection is sometimes lost, our sources point out that the issues are very interconnected between the situation for refugees in Turkey, the Kurdish population, and escalating political turmoil, conflict, and violent extremism.

According to UN reports, 75% of Syrian refugees in Turkey and throughout the region are women and children, and, as Global Fund for Women advisor Aysun Sayin emphasizes, they are facing increased discrimination as the turmoil and conflict escalates. With new threats of violent extremism, people are increasing their discrimination toward refugees and treating them as outside threats. In addition, many Syrian women and children refugees live in southeast Turkey and their needs for shelter, food, health care, and basic necessities are being further exacerbated by the ongoing conflict and curfews, according to women on the ground.

Syrian women and their families seeking refuge in Turkey from the violence in Syria are being turned away. Last week, escalating fighting between Islamic State militants and opposition fighters in northern Syria reportedly displaced more than 30,000 people who were living in two camps for displaced people in only two days of fighting. Turkey has denied reports that Turkish border guards shot some of these refugees as they attempted to cross the border.

This latest wave of displacement and violence in northern Syria only renews concerns about Turkey’s border control and its attitude toward refugees. In recent months, Turkey has also built a 911-kilometer concrete wall along its border. Turkey’s controversial agreement with the European Union signed on March 8th means that more Syrian refugees reaching, or trying to reach, Greece, will be returned to Turkey—with the specifics of where they will go and how they will be treated somewhat unclear.

While the refugee crisis and Turkey’s border situation escalates, many women in the country express their outrage over Europe’s silence on the ongoing conflict in southeast Turkey and targeting of Kurdish civilians. Nurcan Baysal calls it “nonsensical”, adding “if this continues then Kurdish people will also join the refugees rank.”

“The Turkish state is fueling a lynching campaign against Kurds and the [pro-Kurdish and pro-minority] Peoples’ Democratic Party, and anyone who speaks in favor of Kurdish people`s long overdue rights,” adds Nevin Oztop. “The government uses the term ‘cleansing operations’ for its latest war on Kurds. The term itself may be new, but its meaning is something we are quite familiar with: Turkey has been previously ‘cleansed’ of Armenians, of Alevis… now it is the Kurds. However, once the dust settles, Kurdish people will hold not only the Turkish state accountable, but also the European Union for their bought silence.”

Why international solidarity matters, now more than ever

“While Kurdish civilians continue to be targeted by the government and refugees are turned away at the border, we must speak up louder about what is happening in Turkey,” adds Zahra Vieneuve, Global Fund for Women’s Program Officer for the Middle East and North Africa, calling for international solidarity. “It is painful to hear from women on the ground that they feel alone and forgotten by the international community. We must do better. We must raise our voices and give them the attention they deserve by persisting in pushing the Turkish government to uphold its international obligations to the respect of human rights and the rule of law as well as to find a peaceful political solution to the Kurdish question.”

In Turkey, the overwhelming feeling among women on the ground is a lack of regional or international solidarity. Kurdish women, in particular, have experienced discrimination for decades, and they say that they feel ignored by the international community, while their needs are only growing.

“Women, girls, and children urgently need spaces to get psychological, social, legal, and education services,” explains one woman in Diyarbakir. “Women’s organizations cannot provide the safe spaces for these services because they don’t have the resources—and without a safe space, none of these services can be delivered adequately.”

In addition to needs to address women’s growing trauma among the conflict, as well as the lack of health care and increased gender-based violence, many women on the ground say that it’s just as important for the international community to use their voices. They say that especially with the shrinking space in Turkey for activists, journalists writing about the reality on the ground, and people calling for peace, they need international support to elevate the growing crisis and shine a spotlight on women’s needs.

“A lot of people lost houses and family members, and we need to help each other. We need aid and we need food,” shares Nurcan Baysal, of the needs of Kurdish women and their families in Cizre and Diyarbakir in particular. “But we also need to write about it, need to inform the world of what is happening…Everyone is talking about the war, so we should talk about the peace. Every voice is very valuable.”

 

Photo: A woman walks past ruined houses in Cizre, Turkey, Wednesday, March 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Mahmut Bozarslan)