Turkey: UN investigates 'forced suicides'

The Independent
A United Nations envoy has arrived in Turkey to investigate a reported surge in the number of young women committing suicide.
Yakin Erturk, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women, travelled yesterday to the eastern Turkish city of Batman to follow up on reports in local media that up to 36 women had killed themselves since the start of the year. This figure is already much higher than the number for the whole of last year.
Many of the women who have died were allegedly the victims of "forced suicides", where husbands or relatives pushed them into killing themselves to cleanse a perceived offence against family honour.

The family remains paramount across Turkish society and adultery or sex before marriage can be seen as crimes by more socially conservative elements.

The practice of honour killings in Turkey has received widespread attention, and some observers fear that changes to the penal code passed last year have had the unintended consequence of channelling domestic violence into less direct forms.

Women's groups have claimed that in some instances women have been locked in a room with a knife and a gun and told by relatives to end their lives.

Ms Erturk expressed her horror at the reported number of deaths but said there was no hard evidence to support speculation concerning forced suicides.

The increasing influence of women's groups and the prospect of European Union membership prompted a major overhaul of Turkish law in 2005. Legal changes that affected women included an end to commuting sentences for so-called honour killings, while convicted rapists can no longer avoid prison sentences by marrying their victims.

Violence against women is a fact in every country - in the UK two women a week are killed by their partners - but in Turkey conservative attitudes lag behind recent legislation.

While Turkey has one of the lowest suicide rates in the world, some areas of the country are registering higher numbers of women than men taking their lives. "This trend is the reverse of what we've found in the rest of the world and is a great concern," said Ms Erturk. "At this stage I've got more questions than answers."

Other observers have blamed the suicides on despair among young women forced to live severely restricted lives. Leyla Pervizat, a women's rights researcher in Istanbul, warned against blaming a change in the law for the unexplained deaths and cautioned the media against looking for easy answers.

"I'm not surprised this is happening," she said. Turkey is in danger of following the path of Pakistan, Ms Pervizat added, where intense media interest in honour killings was making male-dominated communities find other ways to punish or control women.

"They're going to kill women one way or another," she said.

The mystery of female suicides in Batman has fascinated public opinion in the country for several years. Orhan Pamuk, one of Turkey's leading novelists, set his latest work Snow in Batman with the protagonist being a journalist investigating a suicide epidemic among teenage girls.

The city has found itself at the nexus of the contradictory pressures facing the overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey. The tensions between Islamists, who have a large constituency in rural areas, and the secularists who dominate the army and legal professions, are keenly felt in this part of the country.

Campaigners have pointed to the absence of support for women at risk of abuse. Batman has no shelter or helpline, with the nearest being run by a women's group called Kamer, which is based in the neighbouring province of Diyarbakir.

By Daniel Howden
Published: 25 May 2006