Nebahat Akkoç fights for women's rights and democracy – even though she has been forced to endure torture and has become widowed because of her and her husband's work.
Photo: Hasan Aҫan
Strengthening women’s rights in Turkey
The organisation Kamer began work in southeast Turkey in 1997. At that time it was just a small office with a few women who wanted to help other women. But the story took its beginning three years earlier when a woman named Nebahat Akkoç wanted to understand why violence was so prevalent in the area. What are the causes and why is violence against women particularly elaborate and systematic?
Already at a young age Nebahat Akkoç was active in a union for teachers, something very dangerous in the early 1990s - especially for the Kurds. Sixteen of her colleagues disappeared; they were arrested and then murdered. The same fate befell her husband and one day in February 1994 she was also arrested.
"I was the only woman they took at that time. We were all tortured, almost to the point of death. But in the middle of all that I could not help but notice that the torture I was submitted to was different. They focused on my genitals and the violence was very elaborate".
The arrest and torture only temporarily prevented her struggle for human rights. She stayed in her home during one year, before she began to engage herself in women's rights.
"During the year at home, I began to ponder what life is like for women. I started to analyse the fact that as a widow I wasn't able to move freely outside my home. If I ventured out on my own the gossip would start and I would be seen as a "bad woman".
Violence against women is widespread in southeast Turkey. Poverty is a constant threat and unemployment is high. Most people who live here are Kurds and they have been subjected to severe persecution and they are not recognized as an ethnic group. The violence affects everyone and has spread into the families.
Women's centres and organisations working for equal rights play a very important role in the region and Kamer now has offices in 23 provinces. They organise courses, seminars, workshops and children's activities. The aim is to reduce violence against women, enhance their self-esteem, increase their knowledge about their rights and provide them with business training to better their chances of finding a job.
"If women know their rights and understand that violence is not a normal part of everyday life, they can start to question attitudes and make demands. They will stand up for themselves and feel self-respect. If one woman is empowered, she will help ten others. And from there it continues to grow", says Nebahat.
Many of the women she meets have been married off as children. Nebahat says that 33 per cent are married before they turn 18, sometimes already at the age of 13-15, despite the fact that it is illegal. The marriages are often arranged.
Another serious problem is honour-related killings. The murder of a girl or a woman is usually a joint decision by family members. The reason may be that she has become pregnant without being married, that she wears "inappropriate" clothes, that she talked to a friend whom the family dislikes. The reasons vary, but according to Nebahat a common factor is that the woman has been "disobedient".
"Often a young male family member, under the age of 18, is ordered to kill the woman. He will only be sentenced to 34 months in prison. But recently things have improved a bit, penalties are stricter and those who have been involved in the murder also get punished", she explains.
When Kamer helps a woman at risk of honour-related killings they have to respect her wishes. If she wants to take the case to court, they will provide a lawyer. If she wants to attempt to reconcile with the family, they will initiate talks with them. In those cases they often seek help from someone that the family respects and listens to, such as an imam, politician or a businessman.
Nebahat Akkoç emphasises that even if there are high levels of violence against women in southeast Turkey, this obviously doesn't mean that those who live here are extra prone to violence. But that is a preconception that she often encounters.
"The same thing would happen to others if they were forced to live under difficult circumstances, plagued by poverty, unemployment and conflicts between different groups. We are all human. We are all the same."