KURDISTAN: Solidarity to support women human rights defenders in Turkish Kurdistan

Thursday, February 9, 2012
Roj Women
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Peace Processes

Women's networks show us that solidarity means understanding, sharing information, developing understandings and agendas, meeting together, communicating, supporting each other's work, raising awareness, taking action and working in unity. Lessons from women's solidarity work inform all solidarity movements; indeed equality rights are inseparable from gender rights. In this article it is shown how women's networks can cooperate effectively to complete work, in this instance a piece of research into gendered violations of women human rights defenders in South East Turkey in a context of political and violent conflict, framed by the long-standing feminist concerns about the legitimisation of surveillance, militarization and war.

In March 2011 four researchers representing a London-based women's association, Roj Women, travelled to South East Turkey in order to interview women human rights defenders.

Violence against human rights defenders in Turkey had been highlighted by human rights lawyer Eren Keskin of İnsan Hakları Derneği (Human Rights Association) and is an issue that the team felt was vital to bring to international attention. Workers and volunteers from Roj Women organised themselves to travel for 10 days, a short timeframe, with a handful of contacts. On the ground the team went to lawyers, party, union and administrative offices, counselling and support centres and homes relying on contacts provided by individual members to set up interviews. It was an exhausting few days involving walking, bus journeys and huge assistance from local individuals who hosted and supported the exercise.

In terms of the research, the objective was firstly to raise the voice of the unheard and report specifically on women's experiences of violations against them by using feminist methods; secondly the methodology used a framework of violations against women's human rights defenders and thirdly the fieldwork relied upon networks of organisations that support women's equality in a variety of ways. The fieldwork was only possible through alliances with local women's solidarity networks including organisations involved in prevention or prosecution of domestic violence, legal activism, those working to raise awareness in their communities of political, legal, prisoner, economic, social and cultural rights, and the support network of mothers of children killed in conflict.

The research team was particularly interested in the use of gendered forms of violations and to document the typical sorts and frequency of violations against women human rights defenders in order to report the findings to Committee of the Convention of Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and to EU Parliament committees with responsibility to consider information about the rights and protections for women.

States which ratify CEDAW, and other equality conventions under international law, are bound to address issues of inequality and human rights. States may sign international conventions but through consideration of primary evidence, such as interviews obtained through systematic fieldwork, we observe how their policies and practices in terms of legislation, policing, health, education, culture and economics exacerbate inequality rather than address it positively. This is particularly clear in contexts of war, or emergency law, where the rights of women and children are consistently the first to be undermined. Thus this research was able to report empirical and up to date findings to monitoring bodies due to effective alliances between women's organisations and volunteers.

The study relied upon an internationally established framework of gendered violations of human rights defenders. The researchers interviewed thirty women including members of a bar association, civil society advocacy organisations and services, women's umbrella organisations, lawyers, activists, elected councillors and political party members. A number of violations against the women were identified including attacks on life, bodily and mental integrity, physical and psychological deprivation of liberty, attacks on personhood and reputations, invasion of privacy and violations involving personal relationships, legal provisions and practices restricting women's activism, violations of women's freedom of expression, association and assembly, gendered restrictions on freedom of movement and lack of access to justice. The main legal instrument used to legitimise such violations appears to be national anti-terror legislation enacted since Security Council resolution 1373, a post-9-11 resolution passed within one month of the World Trade Center attacks, that required all UN states to enact additional security legislation. Vaguely termed and broad ranging laws introduced in national jurisdictions mean that those working legitimately are now being targeted and criminalised in a discriminatory way, as in Turkey where demonstrators and human rights defenders active in Kurdish and women's rights defending are facing prosecution.

The report of the Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders to the UN General Assembly in 2003 noted that ‘restrictions on defenders have been justified as measures to improve security and support counter-terrorism, while in many cases the objective has clearly been to conceal human rights abuses that defenders would have otherwise investigated and revealed, or to punish defenders for their human rights work and to discourage others from continuing it'. Women human rights defenders working in conflict areas are disproportionately affected by the security laws and are exposed to accusations of breaching national security. The Rapporteur drew in fact attention to the use of state security apparatus to violate the protection of human rights defenders in her report on Turkey, in 2005. She expressed concern that ‘defenders all reported facing massive numbers of trials and investigations under various laws and regulations'.

Conflict and security measures taken over the years in Kurdish regions resulted in internally displaced populations who have faced loss of livelihood and movement to urban centres straining relationships and family networks. Alongside these features of women's experiences are customary practices which place an obligation on women to represent the honour of the family, resulting in some cases in severe retribution for alleged transgressions. Statistical measures indicate a distorted rate of suicide for young women in the region and less than half the literacy rates for women in Kurdish regions than Turkey as a whole. It is thus in a context of multiple layers of discrimination that work is undertaken for which women's solidarity networks are entirely appropriate.

In contexts where severe and lethal forms of discrimination exist, positive alliances form barriers of resilience and resistance against oppression and harm. Women's solidarity movements and organisations are an example of structures that act as protectors and agents of change which face attack from those resistant to change. The struggle for gender and women's equality is inseparable from other struggles for equality and justice thus those working to promote women's equality can be affected when these are seen to threaten the state.