Working to End Violence Against Women in Turkey

Turkish women and human rights activists attend a rally during the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against
Turkish women and human rights activists attend a rally during the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in Ankara on November 25, 2010. The protesters asked government to protect women against violence and discrimination and respect the basic human rights. AFP PHOTO/ADEM ALTAN (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

"For years I was intimidated though oppression and fear. I went to a KAMER meeting. There was a beautiful woman there. A really beautiful woman, an engaging and confident woman. I was sitting in a corner. I felt so awful at that moment. I felt so low, thinking," Will she even talk to me?" I felt so inferior... After that Hariye started to speak. She gave some information about herself, said her name and asked mine. I was shocked! It's natural; people even name their dogs and cats. I, a 44-year old woman, must have a name, but I wasn't aware of it, I must have forgotten it." - Kardelen, "I exist", KAMER Foundation

This is just one of hundreds of stories told by women who have experienced physical and emotional violence and have come to KAMER Foundation to gain economic independence and seek refuge. Thankfully, towards the end, their stories change their tone. Women come to the organization at their lowest point and leave with a sense of positivity and confidence.

In Turkey, violence against women is a major issue. In 2011, there were 207,253 cases of deliberate injuries to women across the country, compared with 189,377 in 2010. According to a United Nations report published in July 2011, 39 percent of women in Turkey had suffered physical violence at some time in their lives, compared with 22 percent in the United States and between 3 and 35 percent in 20 European countries.

The incidence of violence against women increases dramatically in eastern and southeastern Turkey, which is exactly why the founder of KAMER Foundation, Nebahat Akkoc, chose this region to headquarter their offices.

I visited KAMER Foundation's office in Diyarbakir with UNICEF Ambassador and Founder of WomenOne, Dayle Haddon, during our mission with Turkish Philanthropy Funds. Walking into their headquarters, I already felt the calming feeling of togetherness and safety. The scent of freshly baked baklava greets you at the door and a friendly staff brings tea and coffee. Some women are cooking in the kitchen, some busy on laptops, but everyone works contently. Our stomachs were full from the phenomenal manti (Turkish dumplings) we had just devoured, so we were ready to jump into the meeting.

Some women that experience violence in Turkey are not allowed to leave their homes without the permission or escort of their husbands. Therefore, reaching out to those in need can be tricky. KAMER visits surrounding villages, shantytowns and slums, introducing themselves to communities. They knock on every door and simply raise awareness that they exist. They say, 'if you know someone' that is experiencing domestic violence, please spread the word. Their visits generally happen during the day, to ensure that the men are not in the house.

The women then slowly find ways to contact the KAMER offices. Be it by phone or in person they find themselves greeted in the same offices where Dayle and I entered. In some cases, physical violence is not an issue, but they are emotionally suffocated and are not allowed to work. In other cases, women are completely open and have brought their husbands to the center to show them it is a safe place. Every situation varies, as everybody's story is different.

Knowing that each situation is not the same, they address each issue very differently. They hold informational sessions, find women employment or help them seek refuge. The sessions KAMER holds, do not, by any means, claim to be the answer to their problems. They simply facilitate group learning and consciousness-raising for women. They discuss a range of topics tailored to women's needs and circumstances, including: human rights, democratic participation, leadership, education, and domestic violence prevention. One of the most effective ways of combating violence is solely convincing women that they do not deserve it. A KAMER study found that 90 percent of women in Turkey who've experienced violence, accept it as a given, just because of their gender.

The foundation has also opened cafes, restaurants and hotels where they employ women that have attended their meetings. Women who work there are looking for a sense of economic independence, so they no longer need to depend on their husbands.

In extreme cases, they also provide an emergency information hot line as well as a range of legal and psychological counseling services for women who seek refuge or other help.

As we sat in their office listening to the logistics of the organization, we wished we could have met some of the participants of the center. As reading their stories does not have the same effect as meeting them in person, we raised this question. They did not invite any participants to our meeting, as it would break the strong bond of trust and privacy they have with the organization. However, we learned that the restaurant where we ate before entering was run by participants. The owner had first worked at one of KAMER's restaurants, received training and later saved enough to open her own restaurant, right next door to KAMER's office. Having met the owner, Dayle and I both remarked on her confident demeanor, before having known her connection to KAMER.

KAMER has now spread to provinces all over the country, as the effectiveness of the system has proven strong. Not all cases end on a positive note. There have been situations of honor killings, where no one is willing to bury the body of the woman, or severe beatings and women have no one to sit beside their hospital beds and KAMER steps in and plays their role in standing up for women. But through each woman they help gain independence, through each woman who overcomes or prevents violence, their fight towards equality grows and has a stronger impact.

"Anything can happen at any moment. It [KAMER] generated so much awareness in me. It increased my self-confidence. It enabled me to raise my voice. I learned to yell at the top of my lungs, 'This is my right, too'. And I know my daughter is going to live very comfortably. And her child will even have a better life... " -- Canan, "I Exist", KAMER Foundation