UN investigates 'forced suicides' in Turkey

By Daniel Howden 
Published: 25 May 2006 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 


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