Lying on the Iranian border in the far east of Anatolia, Van is one of Turkey's poorest provinces. It has experienced dramatic social and economic change. Over the past decades, it has received major migration from people displaced by the armed conflict between the Turkish military and the terrorist PKK in Turkey's southeast, swelling its population by nearly a quarter. As a result, even in the urban areas, village lifestyles are prevalent.
Cut off from their land, many of the immigrants depend on casual or seasonal work. Van's industrial zone, set up in 1998, has only 27 active businesses; the remaining 73 plots are empty or under construction. Employment in industry in this province inhabited by more than 1 million people is less than 7,000. Per capita income is only 55€ per month. By any measure of socio-economic development in Turkey, Van ranks near the bottom of the list.
In the face of such deeply rooted poverty, large families continue to be a key mechanism for social protection and control. Households in Van average 7.4 members, with most women kept at home to look after children and the elderly and to perform domestic work. Girls marry at a very young age – around half of them between 16 and 20 – and often within the extended family.
Sixteen percent of men and nearly half the women in the province are illiterate. Although there is a university in Van only a third of the students continue from primary on to secondary school. These factors – high dependence on subsistence farming, sudden and very recent urbanisation, low incomes, large families, poor education outcomes – combine to entrench a deeply conservative society, in which traditional views of a woman's place and a man's honour prevail, among women and men alike. Violence is a feature of daily life for a large number of women in Van. In surveys, 82 percent of women are victims of violence 'often' or 'very often'. Fifty-three percent of women report violence from their husband, and 30 percent report violence from their mother-in-law. The triggering events for domestic violence can range from leaving home without permission or returning home late, to neglecting household chores or refusing marital sex.
The informal power of tribes remains strong. There are also doubts as to whether the Family Protection law applies to the couples (estimates go up to 20 percent) married only through religious ceremonies (imam nikahi), which are not recognised by the courts. WWHR found that in 1996 11 percent of women lived in polygamous relationships – officially banned since 1926. For many of these women, even the best law is simply out of their reach.
Poor coordination between state institutions and the absence of a suitable shelter were additional problems. Now a shelter is being established. The governorate has also established an inter-agency Monitoring Committee to coordinate action among institutions for protecting women subject to violence. The first Family Court opened in Van in September 2005.
These actions are in part a response to central government initiatives, following a directive issued by the prime minister in 2006 on "Precautions to be taken against violence towards children and women, and customs and honour killings". It was based on the findings of a 12-member special parliamentary commission set up in May 2005 under the leadership of AKP deputy Fatma Sahin. It calls for a broad national strategy to enhance the status of women in Turkey and combat violence, and includes a reference to the need for positive discrimination measures until equality between men and women is achieved. Ensuring that these initiatives are effective in a place like Van will require a great deal more effort.