Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Turks Combating 'Honor Killings'

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- In a remote part of Istanbul, a young woman sat in front of a television on a recent day watching a chilling scene unfold. Panning across the dank walls of a cave, the camera stopped on a primitive drawing of a female form, then dissolved into a modern crime scene showing the chalk outline of a woman's body on a road.

"Every year, dozens of women fall victim," a menacing voice said. "Don't be a part of this shame; don't turn a blind eye to murders committed in the name of honor."

The video is part of a nationwide campaign in Turkey to bring an end to so-called "honor killings," in which a woman is killed by her husband or a male relative for behavior that is perceived as a slight to the dignity and respectability of her family. Rights organizations in Turkey and abroad have long denounced the practice as brutal and unfair to women. Men who engage in the same activities are not held accountable.

The 24-year-old woman was watching a preview of the television spot with officials from a women's shelter. She had been staying there for three days, the latest stop in a series of moves intended to keep her at a safe distance from a family that had decided she must return to her abusive husband, or die.

Identified by shelter officials only as Nazan, she was married against her will when she was 15 and is now the mother of three children.

Official records state that 43 women in Turkey were victims of honor killings in 2004. But human rights activists say the number is far greater than that, with families reporting deaths as suicides or simply filing missing persons reports.

"Women's groups have been active in raising consciousness to prevent honor killings in the past few years, but what they needed was a national campaign to support their work," said Nilufer Narli, a sociologist from Kadir Has University in Istanbul.

Honor killings are most common in the country's rural southeast and among poorer and less educated Turks. In Diyarbakir, the largest city in the region, there are no shelters, despite efforts by local groups.

"Women are deeply hesitant to come to us," said Reyhan Yalcindag, deputy director of the Diyarbakir Human Rights Association. "Even if they had the courage to file an official complaint, they still must go back to the home where they are targets, and live among the very people they have made charges against."

Turkey, in hopes of being granted entry into the European Union, is working to bring its human rights standards in line with those of the West and to modernize its criminal justice system.

A new penal code, ratified in September 2004, eliminated "protection of family honor" as a mitigating circumstance in murder trials and introduced heavier penalties for honor killing convictions. Another law recently passed by Parliament calls for the creation of a women's shelter in every large municipality in the country.

But some critics say the changes are not enough. Despite the removal of the family honor provision, the commission making the legal changes left a loophole in the law, preserving "unjust provocation" as an available defense that could be invoked in honor killing cases.

And while Yalcindag welcomed the potential addition of hundreds of new shelters, she said she was skeptical about the support they would get.