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(Istanbul) - The Turkish government's changes to the current Ministry for Women and Family is a step backward in its struggle to combat gender inequality and violence against women, Human Rights Watch said today. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that the "Ministry for Women and Family" will be replaced by a "Ministry of Family and Social Policies," ending a much-needed explicit focus on women's rights, Human Rights Watch said.

Erdoğan made the change on June 8, 2011, four days before the June 12 general election, as part of a revised structure for the Council of Ministers. This is much more than just a name change and signals a reduced emphasis on women's rights, and efforts to promote the rights to non-discrimination and freedom from violence will suffer, Human Rights Watch said. Rather than taking the spotlight off women's rights, Turkey needs to take urgent steps to combat endemic violence against women, Human Rights Watch said.

"The Turkish government's decision to scrap the Ministry for Women flies in the face of research showing major shortcomings on women's rights and horrendous violence against women," said Gauri van Gulik, women's rights advocate and researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Women in Turkey need more determined action by the government, not less, to protect women's rights in practice."

The existing ministry's mandate was dedicated to working on issue relating to women's rights and the family. The new ministry, however, will deal with issues of concern relating to children, the aged, the disabled, and the families of soldiers who die during active service, as well as family and women's rights. The existing Directorate for the Status of Women will be a department within the ministry.

A Human Rights Watch report issued in May documents brutal and long-lasting violence against women and girls in Turkey by husbands, partners, and family members, and the survivors' struggle to get protection. A study by Turkey's Hacettepe University has shown that about 42 percent of Turkish women experience physical or sexual violence inflicted by a relative at some point in their lives.

Turkey has improved its laws, setting out requirements for shelters for abused women and protection orders. However, gaps in the law and implementation failures by police, prosecutors, judges, and other officials make the protection system unpredictable at best, and at times downright dangerous, Human Rights Watch said.

In addition to the high rates of domestic violence in Turkey, other statistics speak to broader gender inequality in the country. In 2010, Turkey ranked 83 on the United Nations Development Programme's global Gender Inequality Index - down six places compared with 2008. Women hold just 9 percent of seats in the national parliament, and only 27 of the country's nearly 3,000 mayors are women.

Women are 27 percent of the paid work force. Only about 19 percent of women are engaged in income-generating work in Turkey, and in the eastern part of the country, the figure is about 10 percent. Illiteracy figures released by the government show great disparities between men and women: 3.8 million of the 4.7 million people who are illiterate are women.

"Women in Turkey have a long way to go to get their rights or even to be protected from violence," Van Gulik said. "The government needs to send a strong signal to all women that it cares and intends to protect and promote their rights."

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