ISTANBUL -- There are few things that shock Pinar Ilkkaracan, one of Turkey’s most prominent women activists. For three decades, she has battled what she describes as stifling sexism and stubborn politicians. But in 2010, in a revealing moment she says still haunts her, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Ilkkaracan and dozens of representatives from Turkey’s top women’s organizations that he simply does not believe in gender equality. It was a shocking blow to her lifetime of work.
"Turkey is going in a very bad direction," Ilkkaracan, co-founder of a leading women's rights NGO, said with an air of defeat. "Erdogan is becoming more and more dictatorial. As long as he is here, it’s very clear: things will get worse for women."
In the '80s and '90s, a blossoming women’s movement emerged in Turkey, leading to protests against gender-based violence and the creation of new human rights groups. But the situation for Turkish women remains grim.
Last year, Turkey was rated 120 out of 136 countries in terms of gender gaps in education, health, politics and economics by the World Economic Forum. Its rates of violence against women, some of the worst in all of Europe, doubled from 2008 to 2012, according to the parliamentary Human Rights Commission. The country is also wracked by startling rates of child brides -- nearly 7,000 girls were married between the ages of 13 and 17 over the past decade, according to a survey by a women's rights group. And as of 2012, only about a third of women in Turkey had jobs, less than half the average in the European Union.
Many activists at high-profile women's organizations here say women's rights will only continue to decline under Erdogan, who preaches Islamist values and has emboldened a religious conservative class in Turkey. Though his approval rating has fallen over the past year, he is likely to maintain a strong grip on the country in the coming years, either by remaining prime minister -- if his party abolishes term limits and allows him to run for a fourth term -- or in the less-powerful role of president. A majority of deputies in his ruling party on Thursday reportedly threw their support behind a potential presidential campaign, and Erdogan has vowed to increase the power of the position.
Advocates like Ilkkaracan, who frequently stage protests and write articles in popular Turkish media outlets, point to Erdogan's stance on abortion as a prime example of his push to limit women's rights. Although in 1983 the government legalized abortion up to 10 weeks after conception, Erdogan announced a plan two years ago to ban all abortions after four weeks of pregnancy.
"There is no difference between killing a baby in its mother's stomach and killing a baby after birth," Erdogan said at a conference in 2012. "No one should have the right to allow this to happen."
Now, many Turkish women say they cannot get abortions in state hospitals and are forced to go to expensive private clinics. One Turkish woman in her late 20s, who spoke to The WorldPost on condition of anonymity, said she recently had to go to a private clinic to get an abortion and paid 500 Turkish liras, or roughly $235. She says that other women have paid double that amount -- about half of the average annual disposable income for Turks in 2012, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute.
"No other [Turkish] government has been so radical against women," said Ilke Gokdemir, who works at Mor Cati, or Purple Roof, an organization to combat violence against women.
Gokdemir's organization runs one of the only independent shelters in Turkey for women fleeing domestic violence, which she and other activists say is one of the country's biggest problems. Although the government passed a law to combat domestic violence in 2012, it has not been effectively enforced, they say.
"Instead of concentrating on protecting women who suffer from domestic violence, the government concentrates on how they can make the laws more in line with their conservative ideology," said Ilkkaracan, whose NGO is called Women for Women's Rights. "There is a difference between what is happening in the legal sphere and everyday life. The laws aren’t being implemented."
Though activists say the government has several dozen shelters for women, Gokdemir laments that they are ineffective. She says she has heard about many cases in which state shelters sent women back to abusive households, forced them to send their children to social services, and denied them access to their cell phones (oftentimes their only means of communication).
"These are prisons for women -- just another violent environment," she said.
According to government data, 802 women were killed from domestic violence over the past five years and 28,000 were subjected to violence last year. Gokdemir, on the other hand, says that women’s organizations she works with have much bleaker numbers. She estimates that three to five women are killed every day in Turkey, most of them victims of domestic violence.
Women's advocates say there are crucial steps that need to be taken to curb violence against women: implementing effective legislation, educating women on their rights, supporting their economic empowerment, and pushing them to the forefront of political discourse, a conversation largely dominated by men. The movement cannot move forward without progress in the political sphere, says Zafer Berkol, chairwoman of KADER, a prominent Turkish organization pushing for equal representation of men and women in politics.
"Politics are so important. Why? Because politicians decide. Men make laws," she said.
The Peace and Democracy Party, the main Kurdish party in Turkey, has made notable strides to include women in politics, like recently instituting a party rule that top positions must be shared by a man and a woman. Rezan Zugurli, a member of the party, was elected last month as the country's youngest mayor at 25 years old -- a move that Berkol says is a step forward for the younger generation. Still, she says, the future looks bleak if Erdogan and his party remain in office -- which many Turks see as a fait accompli -- and continue to work against women’s empowerment.
"There is no democracy, neither in politics nor in social life," she said, looking back on 20 years of activism. "And it’s getting worse and worse."
As the country approaches the presidential elections, Berkol's group is organizing seminars and community-based projects to educate women on the political process as well as their rights within their homes and Turkish society as a whole. She says that more than ever, her fight is an uphill battle.
"At times, I feel like I don’t belong to Turkey," she said, shaking her head at the state of her country. "Like my spirit doesn’t belong here."