Istanbul (AFP) -
Thousands protested in Turkey on Saturday calling for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to reverse his decision to withdraw from the world's first binding treaty to prevent and combat violence against women.
The government sparked domestic and international outrage after announcing the decision before dawn on Saturday, the latest victory for conservatives in Erdogan's nationalist party and their allies who argued the treaty damaged family unity.
The 2011 Istanbul Convention, signed by 45 countries and the European Union, requires governments to adopt legislation prosecuting domestic violence and similar abuse as well as marital rape and female genital mutilation.
'Reverse your decision, apply the treaty!' chanted thousands of people during a protest in the Kadikoy neighbourhood on the Asian side of Istanbul on Saturday.
The protesters held up portraits of women murdered in Turkey, one reading: 'It is women who will win this war'.
Protester Banu said she was 'fed up with the patriarchal state'.
'I'm fed with not feeling safe. Enough!' she told AFP.
Other smaller protests were held in the capital Ankara and the southwestern city of Izmir, according to media reports.
Europe's top rights body, the Council of Europe, denounced Turkey's withdrawal from a treaty it sponsored.
'This move is a huge setback to these efforts and all the more deplorable because it compromises the protection of women in Turkey, across Europe and beyond,' Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejcinovic Buric said.
The treaty 'is widely regarded as the gold standard in international efforts to protect women and girls from the violence that they face every day in our societies,' she added.
The European Parliament's Turkey rapporteur Nacho Sanchez Amor tweeted that 'this is the current Turkish government's real face: complete disregard to the rule of law, and full backsliding on human rights.'
Conservatives had claimed the charter damages family unity, encourages divorce and that its references to equality were being used by the LGBT community to gain broader acceptance in society.
Turkey had been debating a possible departure after an official in Erdogan's party suggested dropping the treaty last year.
Since then, women have taken to the streets in cities across the country calling on the government to stick to the convention.
- 'You and your evil' -
The publication of the decree in the official gazette early Saturday immediately sparked anger.
Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, one of Erdogan's main rivals, tweeted that the decision 'tramples on the struggle that women have been waging for years'.
Gokce Gokcen, deputy chairperson of the main opposition CHP party, said abandoning the treaty meant 'keeping women second-class citizens and letting them be killed.'
'Despite you and your evil, we will stay alive and bring back the convention,' she said on Twitter.
Even the pro-government Women and Democracy Association (KADEM), whose deputy chair is Erdogan's younger daughter, expressed some unease, saying the Istanbul Convention 'played an important role in the fight against violence'.
In response to the avalanche of criticism, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said 'our institutions and our security forces will continue to fight domestic violence and violence against women'.
- 300 femicides in 2020 -
Domestic violence and femicide remain a serious problem in Turkey.
Last year, 300 women were murdered and the rate is speeding up, with 77 killed already this year, according to the rights group We Will Stop Femicide Platform.
'The Istanbul convention was not signed at your command and it will not leave our lives on your command,' the platform's secretary general Fidan Ataselim tweeted.
The country was also shaken by a video spread widely on social media earlier this month showing a man beating his ex-wife on the street.
The man was arrested on Sunday and Erdogan announced a parliamentary commission would be created to look at legislation to combat violence.
Rights groups accuse Erdogan of taking mostly Muslim but officially secular Turkey on an increasingly socially conservative course during his 18 years in power.
After a spectacular Pride March in Istanbul drew 100,000 people in 2014, the government responded by banning future events in the city, citing security concerns.