Image: Recep Tayyip Erdogan / Kremlin / Wikimedia Commons
This past Saturday was rather ordinary in New Zealand, a humdrum winter’s day filled with theatrical performances, rugby matches, political gatherings, and the like. Cold weather aside, there wasn’t too much for the majority of people to complain about.
But if it was heaven in Aotearoa, it was hell in Turkey.
The reason: an attempted military coup d’état.
The news was sure to be shocking: a coup in Turkey, a country with about 80 million people that’s also part of NATO, one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, and a key player in the fight against ISIS and other regional terror groups. Horrifying as the images of tanks rolling down the streets of Istanbul and Ankara are, they’re nowhere near as tragic as knowing shootings, bombings and other violence throughout the country as a result of the coup has killed hundreds.
While coup leaders may often say they’re doing so because there is no other way to bring about change, the reality is coups rarely – if ever – improve a country’s human rights situation. Especially when a failed coup emboldens an already increasingly autocratic ruler.
And coups are especially bad for women.
The vast majority of coups are violent (bloodless coups are exceptionally rare, with only a handful known to have happened in recorded history), which means that almost by definition they’re bad for women. Even if coups aren’t successful (only about half of them are), they lead to a government crackdown on perceived “enemies”; already in Turkey, thousands of people have been arrested for their alleged links to the coup and opposition to the government.
While coups are ongoing, a breakdown in order and general lawlessness usually pervades, since police and military are often busy fighting each other or other government forces. The problem is this almost always leads to a dramatic increase in sexual violence, and since law has broken down, rapists are almost never punished.
Then there’s what happens when coups are successful. Of the 14 world leaders currently in power through coups, all of them are notorious for their repression of the rights of women – and are also extremely conservative to boot.
A short look at history shows just how bad coups are for women. In Honduras, a 2009 coup led to severe crackdowns on women’s reproductive rights and stymied what had been a steady march towards greater equality. The country earned the dubious distinction of “murder capital of the world,” with violence rates rising sharply – particularly violence towards women. From 2005 to 2013, the rate of femicide increased almost four-fold (260 per cent). In 2015, a woman in Honduras was killed every 16 hours – a shockingly high number considering the country’s population is only about nine million people.
In Egypt, a succession of coups and unrest brought about by the Arab Spring has made life dramatically worse for women. In 2013, a coup d’état led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi led to the removal of the only democratically elected president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi. As had happened during the Arab Spring protests (which led to Morsi replacing longtime president Hosni Mubarak), the rates of sexual assault exploded.
Thailand is another recent example where a coup has hurt women. A 2014 coup led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra (the country’s first female leader) and resulted in the imposition of martial law. Already a deeply conservative country (apart from tourist centres), so-called “traditional values” were promoted extensively after the coup, as a way to encourage “national unity.”
Oppressive as regimes may already be in some countries where coups take place, coups – successful or not – often make things worse, not better. The (unsurprising) takeaway here is that the violent wresting of power isn’t just bad for women’s rights, it’s bad for human rights.