We have the right to expect bar associations, which could react quickly to the decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, to produce solutions at the same speed in providing free legal support to women who have been subjected to violence.
At Purple Roof (Mor Çatı), of which I am a volunteer, we carry out the monitoring and reporting of the patriarchal justice system in the light of the knowledge and experience we have gained from women for many years. Legal aid offices, which are one of the pillars of this system, and the quality of the support given to women by these offices are often in our focus. We conducted a study in which we monitored the support given to women by the legal aid units throughout 2020. A few months ago, we published a follow-up report titled “Women’s Access to Justice: The Role of Bar Legal Aid Offices in Enforcement of Laws to Combat Violence Against Women”.
As the most recent research conducted by Dissensus Research for Purple Roof clearly shows, economic violence is one of the most common forms of violence that women are exposed to, and its economic effects cannot be ignored when considering the effects of violence on women. For this very reason, women who are exposed to violence and/or impoverished need the support of a lawyer in their access to justice. As a Purple Roof volunteer, I am already familiar with this information we gained from women. However, during this monitoring study, while I was undertaking tasks such as requesting data from bar associations, holding focus group meetings with employees in various positions in legal aid units, and writing the report, I also had the chance to observe the institutional structure of the legal support given to women, the positions and approaches of practitioners, and gained new information. In this article, I would like to discuss my personal experiences during the monitoring process by focusing on the preparation process rather than the content of the monitoring report. I would like to share what emerges when I look at bar associations and legal aid units, which are only one of the support mechanisms provided to women in combating violence, from a feminist perspective.
About the method
I made phone calls with 41 bar associations across Turkey for the preliminary preparation of the monitoring report. The experiences we have gained from women over the years show that there are different approaches and practices towards women who are exposed to violence in bar associations in different provinces. For this reason, it was important to reach bar associations from different provinces from each region and gather information in the follow-up study.
We planned the content of these calls with my volunteer friends who are conducting social work at Purple Roof. When I called the bar associations, I asked them to connect me directly to the legal aid offices; there, I mostly interviewed the legal aid office personnel firstly, then the lawyer in charge of legal aid (if any), and sometimes also the heads of the legal aid commissions. I told the people I talked to that I was calling from Purple Roof. I asked them that we were conducting a research on the legal support received by women who were subjected to violence and how they provided support to women who were subjected to violence, in their offices. I had to open up my question a little more because I encountered stereotypical answers such as “we do not discriminate, we give everyone the best support if they meet the necessary conditions.” I asked whether there was a special list of lawyers to be appointed in cases of violence (consisting of lawyers trained in this field), whether there was data on the support provided, and the documents requested from the women who applied. (1)
Female office staff carrying the burden of legal aid offices
Although the office staff I had the first interview had the most comprehensive knowledge and experience of the operation and were the first to encounter women who were exposed to violence, they tried to connect me quickly to the responsible lawyer, saying that due to the hierarchical structure of the bar associations, it was not they but the lawyer in charge.
Our volunteer friends who carry out social work at Purple Roof often say that office staff are in a very vital position and that their approach as the first person who encounters women plays a very important role in whether women continue the legal procedures. Based on this information, I tried to understand their experiences and approaches by talking to these people as much as possible during the preliminary study (as much as possible with a phone call). Our conversation with some of them had to be short-lived due to their workload (often only one or two staff working in the offices), which showed us directly how heavy the workload of the office staff actually is. Under this burden, it raised questions about whether they could give women the first information (such as directing them to a responsible lawyer and requesting the necessary documents) in a qualified and accurate manner. In addition, I have observed again that they do not get the support they should receive such as information and supervision regarding the approach to women who have been subjected to violence.
In these interviews, while there were those who avoided my questions and did not want to give information, I had the chance to establish a closer relationship with especially female office staff. I met office staff women who tried to answer my questions in as much detail as possible, shared information about different lawyers they thought could help me, and said they knew and followed Purple Roof. Even without giving much detail, there were women employees who openly shared that they had to deal with many applications by themselves or only with someone else, that it was impossible to keep data under these conditions, and that they had difficulties under the burden of paperwork.
“Let’s give you the solicitress’ phone number”
The thing that caught my attention the most during my phone calls with the office staff and the responsible lawyers they connected me with was the reply “Let’s direct you to the head of the Women’s Rights Commission”, which I received directly when I told them I was calling from Purple Roof and about the subject we were working on. Another version of this was “Let’s direct you to Ms. X from the Legal Aid Commission.”
According to the legal aid procedure, those who evaluate the applicants for legal aid are the lawyers in charge of the legal aid office and the legal aid commission makes the final decision. Therefore, when we look at it procedurally, none of these female lawyers they want to direct me is the person who makes the final decision on the support given to women who have been subjected to violence; but it is clear that in minds this issue is handled in a monolithic way as “women’s issues.” All responsibility falls on women’s rights commissions, which do not get remuneration for the support they provide to women, or on women lawyers who are not primarily authorized to decide on the appointment of lawyers in legal aid commissions.
Access to rights under Law No. 6284
In my interviews with both the legal aid office personnel and the responsible lawyers, as I mentioned above, I frequently encountered the answer “we do not discriminate, we give the best support to everyone here if they meet the necessary conditions.” If I explain this a little bit, the authorized people say that there is no need for a special practice for women, and everyone who meets the necessary documents and conditions is already appointed a lawyer from legal aid. However, when I asked about the issues that women who applied for could be appointed, for example, whether a lawyer was appointed to access the rights under the Law No. 6284, I saw once again that women in many bar associations in Turkey could not get support in their applications regarding 6284. When I asked questions about this situation, both the lawyers and the office staff often replied with a mixed discourse like this: “Women do not apply to the bar for 6284. This place is not like other provinces. Women are already very conscious, they know their rights, and by applying to the police station/prosecutor’s office/family court, they take their own injunctions under 6284. Even if there is a great need, our lawyers from the women’s rights commission take care of it in the best way possible.”
Of course, there is an obvious discrimination embedded in this discourse, which I hear mostly in Western provinces. The regionally discriminatory answer to the question of who is more conscious than whom is very loud and clear in people’s minds.
In addition, the incomplete, incorrect and deterrent information and bad practices of law enforcement officers, prosecutor’s office and family courts all over Turkey on the Law No. 6284 have already been extensively reported all over Turkey, including the provinces they mentioned (2). Therefore, we know very well that women cannot easily benefit from the Law No. 6284 by applying to these places.
Another problem is that women do not apply; because they do not know that they can get such support from the bar; necessary announcements are not made for this.
And lastly, directing the applicant women to women’s rights commissions, which female lawyers voluntarily support, is actually a clear exploitation of labor. In my interviews, the applications regarding the Law No. 6284 were interpreted as “a simple petition work”; paying for it was interpreted as “not fair to other lawyers.” Considering these comments, it is very familiar for us feminists, who ponder on the gender-based division of labor, to try to solve this “simple petition work” with the unpaid labor of women lawyers. This is exactly why we insist on the need for support from legal aid offices, which are paid a small fee to lawyers who are allocated and appointed to provide free legal support to women, rather than the voluntary labor of women lawyers.
The best example that reveals the things that this dominant mixed discourse ignores about violence against women is the following sentence that I have not heard very often but heard in a few bar associations: “There is not much violence here anyway; there have been a few femicides in the past year alone.” This sentence, the contradiction of which makes one shudder, completely ignores that the path to the murder of women was created by bad practices. As conceptualized in the report of Dissensus Research, it clearly shows how women are discouraged by the “obstacles” they encounter on the “thresholds” they repeatedly come to avoid violence (3).
Spontaneous solidarity with lawyers from the Women’s Rights Commission
Here, the key point for me was my phone calls with women lawyers from the women’s rights commissions of the bar associations. When I called these lawyers, we were suddenly starting to speak the same language. I got very few stereotypical responses from them; and without needing to explain, they started by saying that the support given to women directly in the legal aid offices is very inadequate. They immediately talked about the jobs left to their voluntary labor, the deficiencies in institutionalization, the fact that they tried to support as many women as possible without putting any limits, and the burnout caused by this. In the days when I had phone calls one after another, this was an experience I had in the form of a frequency change. While trying to talk to the lawyers from the legal aid office, to tell my troubles, to get information, I feel as if I’m calling from another universe, while talking carefully in order to get as much information as possible without disturbing them, trying to make them feel that I do not intend to harm the corporate reputation of the bar association and I just try to get information, with female lawyers we were suddenly starting to talk about similar problems in a similar language, quickly developing a relationship of trust on the same frequency. This trust relationship developed so smoothly and easily that after having a little talk and I got information from them, they immediately expressed their main expectation from me and Purple Roof: our support in their struggle to improve the practices in legal aid offices. The lawyers from the women’s rights commission, whom I had called so far just to gather general information (we had planned to hold two focus group meetings while planning our work, and invite only the legal aid offices and the responsible lawyers to these meetings) said that it would be great if we invited them to our focus group meeting as well. Thus, they wanted to convey their struggle with the legal aid commissions of their own bar associations in our meetings, and they thought that their words would become more audible under our moderation. It was exactly as they thought.
The presence of lawyers from women’s rights commissions in our focus group meetings pushed the lawyers in charge of legal aid to a more “honest” and “transparent” approach; led them to question their practices. We saw that those who said in our phone calls that they gave special support to women, and that if there is a situation of violence, including rights numbered 6284, they make evaluations without making women wait and by stretching the economic criteria, started to question this optimistic picture in the focus group meetings. With the shares of the lawyers from the women’s rights commission and the women who voluntarily carry out social work and provide advocacy support at Purple Roof, the lawyers from the legal aid office were able to express more strongly that the same approach cannot be followed for all women and that improvements are needed.
As a Conclusion
Of course, a systemic change is not easy at all; a long-term and effective struggle is needed. However, we have the right to expect bar associations, which could react quickly to the decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, to produce solutions at the same speed in the issue of providing free legal support to women who have been subjected to violence, which is one of the requirements of the Convention. Fortunately, none of us are alone in this struggle. The enthusiasm and efforts of female legal aid office personnel and female lawyers, with whom I can easily collaborate, develop solidarity, and who clearly identify deficient and wrong practices, and strive for change, shows that there is still hope that we can bring change together.
- We then asked these questions in written to each bar association in 81 provinces. In the report you can find information about the questions and the small number of responses.
Translator: Gülcan Ergün
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan