Educating for women's rights in Turkey

Evre Kaynak
10 December 2007

Provided with the necessary knowledge and awareness, every woman has the capacity to help stop violence against women. Evre Kaynak of Turkey's Human Rights Education Programme says participatory projects are the key to success.

Over the past 10 years, Turkey has witnessed major reforms in the sphere of women's human rights and the prevention of violence against women, largely due to the successful advocacy efforts of the women's movement, spearheaded by women's NGOs. The first breakthrough was the adoption of the 1998 law on the protection of the family aimed at preventing domestic violence, followed by reform of the Civil Code in 2001, and most recently reform of the Turkish Penal Code in 2004. Through these reforms, women have attained the legal basis to exercise their human rights.

However, field surveys carried out by Women for Women's Human Rights (WWHR) in 1993 and 1997, conducted through interviews with 754 women living in Ankara, Istanbul, East Anatolia and South-East Anatolia found that women living in Turkey were not aware of their human rights guaranteed through national and international laws. Furthermore, the number of independent women's organisations in Turkey was very limited. Women's daily lives were being shaped by patriarchal customs and traditions, the so called "verbal laws"(LINK). The alarming gap between women's legal human rights and the reality of their everyday lives exposed the need for a comprehensive grassroots training programme, to increase women's knowledge and awareness of their rights, and to develop skills for realizing those rights.

Education is key

The subsequent Human Rights Education Programme (HREP), developed by WWHR is a 16 module program covering: constitutional and civil rights, violence against women and domestic violence, strategies against violence, women's economic rights, communication skills, gender sensitive parenting and the rights of the child, women and sexuality, reproductive rights, women and politics, feminism and the women's movement, and women's grassroots organising. Implemented in 1998 in cooperation with the General Directorate of Social Services (LINK), a government institution, the program has reached more than 5000 women in 36 different provinces throughout Turkey. HREP is the most widespread and sustainable human rights education program in Turkey, and the region.

HREP is also helping to reduce the gap that exists between legislation and implementation of laws, by initiating independent women's organisation at the grassroots levels as well as acting as a driving force for the involvement of women from the grassroots levels in advocacy efforts.

The education programme has been further developed and implemented as an interdependent process of training, activism, networking and cooperation for the promotion and protection of women's human rights.

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The process

It begins with the needs, expectations and experiences of participating women. By sharing their individual experiences and learning from each others' experiences, a common understanding on women's human rights in the framework of various socio-political and cultural dimensions besides specific individual cases, leads to the development of a solidarity network.

Sharing the issues that matter to us as women in our private and daily lives, in our relationships with our family and friends; getting to know about the common problems we encounter as women such as violence against women, speaks to the experiences of women outside the training group. Enhanced self-awareness, solidarity within the group, and networking among different HREP groups is followed by practical steps taken by individual participants and groups collectively.

With an enhanced knowledge and awareness of their human rights and improved skills such as making use of the laws through attorneys or Bar Associations (LINK), communication with family members or the perpetrators of violence, participants are encouraged by HREP social workers to employ their own strategies for the prevention and/or elimination of violence.

By learning their rights and teaching them to others, women develop their capacities to pass on the necessary information and skills to their families, communities, and future generations about how to resolve problems without resorting violence.

Measuring success

In the course of 12 years (1995 to 2007), 15 grassroots women's organisations have emerged from HREP. These organisations have become active agents in their communities on women's human rights, and become allies of the women's movement nationally and globally.

In Canakkale (western Turkey), HREP participants founded the Women's Counselling and Solidarity Centre in 2003, a hugely successful centre working on violence against women in Turkey. In Van (Eastern Turkey), HREP participants established the first independent women's in the region, the Van Women's Association (VAKAD). VAKAD is one of the most active women's human rights organisations in the country, and established a women's shelter in cooperation with the local government in 2005.

An external evaluation in 2003 found sustainable qualitative and quantitative measures of improvement on various aspects of women's daily lives: 63% of the participants had the domestic physical violence they were facing stopped, while 22% reduced it; 54% returned to their schooling; 29% joined the labour force outside their home, and 89% became resource persons in their families and their communities.

Reasons for success

Violence against women is one of the most destructive common outcomes of gender inequality and unequal power relations between men and women. HREP acknowledges that each case of violence against women has got its own dimensions and that it is not possible to suggest only one way for the prevention and elimination of violence against women. Each case requires a particular strategy. On the other hand we believe that the holistic approach adopted by this education programme is a tool which can provide women with the necessary knowledge and skills to empower them assert their rights and stop violence.

Participatory approaches that provide the space for women to develop their own strategies to work on women's human rights violations are key to make the transition from individual to collective, local to global levels. These complementary approaches to content and methods of human rights education are the main factors that lead to sustainable outcomes for the prevention and elimination of violence against women worldwide.

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