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For Berivan Elif Kilic there is no such thing as a typical day. The 34-year-old mayor of Kocakoy, a village of 17,000 inhabitants in southeastern Turkey, has just calculated that in the first 11 months after she took on the role, she spent only 11 full days in the village.
“When I’m in town, I wake up at eight and I come to the municipal office where I work,” she explains. “I listen to the complaints and needs of locals.”
Kilic and her co-mayor mediate conflicts, attend funerals and visit the sick. When they are travelling, they do what they can for their constituents over the phone.
Kilic became mayor on March 30, 2014, as part of an initiative by Turkey’s Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) to get more women involved in politics. A system whereby two mayors – one male and one female – jointly lead townships and villages was introduced, and widely praised by champions of equality. Kilic’s story proved of particular interest to international observers.
At first, she says, she wondered “why are all of the world’s journalists paying attention to me? Am I really the only woman that has faced difficulties?”
But then she answered her own question: “It’s probably because a woman never discusses her problems publicly, especially if she has faced violence.”
And Kilic has experienced plenty of that.
She married her now ex-husband when she was just 15 years old, and describes the relationship that followed as “hell”.
“Even when I still had the sting of a handprint on my face, I denied I was being abused,” Kilic reflects. “I refused to believe it.”
But after 14 years of marriage, she took the step no woman in her village had before: she filed for divorce and custody of her children.
“I’m the first, maybe the second, woman to divorce in Kocakoy,” Kilic declares proudly.
That bold move was the first of many in her life. But the transition was not easy for the mother of two, particularly as her oldest child suffers from Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system.
After the divorce, Kilic and her children moved into her parents’ home. At first she worked as a cleaning lady and then she learnt how to cut hair.
“I took out a loan and opened a hair salon,” she explains.
Within a year, she had paid off the loan.
As a child, Kilic’s education ended when she completed primary school. But today, she is completing the requirements to earn her high school diploma and taking English language classes. In five years, when her term as mayor is up, she intends to enroll in university and study sociology.
“I want this diploma for myself,” she says.
“Right now, in society, a woman can’t just do something because she wants to,” Kilic explains.
And that is exactly what she hopes to change.
“She is either someone’s mother or wife or daughter or girlfriend – she cannot just be a person, an individual, with wants and needs of her own.”
That mentality, the mayor believes, leads to a lack of autonomy, confidence and self-reliance.
“We have been sacrificed by society,” she concludes.
‘I was a woman waiting to die’
Turkey is plagued by high rates of domestic and gender-based violence, although accurate numbers are difficult to come by as such crimes are rarely reported to the police. When they are, women are often sent back to their abusive homes with the directive to ‘work things out’, a 2011 Human Rights Watch study revealed.
In 2009, research conducted by Hacettepe University found that more than four-in-10 Turkish women are beaten by a male partner or relative. In 2014, Turkey’s Human Rights Association reported that at least 257 women were killed by men; news organisations put the number at 287. Fifty-six percent of those, according to independent news source Bianet, died at the hands of a husband or lover.
There was a time when Kilic expected to be just another digit in such a statistic.
“Ten years ago, I was a woman waiting to die,” she says.
Now she believes her position offers an opportunity to all the women of Kocakoy, and beyond.
Among the projects she has planned is a women’s community centre that will offer workshops, a gathering space and a place of refuge in times of need, and a weekly women’s market.
“In the regular markets, men are selling their produce and goods, so we want to hold a market where women can sell their goods [and earn their own income],” Kilic explains.
“These are the kinds of projects I want to establish, which will help women gain confidence and become self-reliant. If that confidence exists, a woman can do anything,” she says.
“Before I became mayor, women weren’t even going into the municipality building to talk about their issues, to talk about what they want. There was not a single woman in our local leadership,” she continues. “Now we have me as one of the co-mayors, and we have three women in government. The deputy mayor is a woman. In a place like Kocakoy, the fact that a woman takes over is unheard of.”
She believes other women will be inspired by her and that when local elections next come around, many more will be entering the fray.
And it is not just the women who have embraced their new mayor and the example she sets.
“Men come to the municipality and seek help with situations with their wives or daughters or girlfriends,” she says. “Now, women everywhere are talking about domestic violence because of my story. I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback, especially from men who are saying they’re ashamed of the violent acts men carry out against women.”
But Kilic is no victim and resents the way the Turkish media have portrayed her. “While foreign media celebrated my election as a victory, local media painted me as a victim and threw a pity party.”
It was, she says, “really bad”, because she doesn’t want to be known for the abuse she endured or the education she was denied.
“I want to be known for my accomplishments,” Kilic concludes. “I want you and other journalists to come back in a few years and see what I have actually built and accomplished.”
“When I visit families, they ask me what level of education I have. I say I just finished primary school. They are surprised and ask ‘can a person with just primary school education be mayor?’ And I say, ‘yes, of course, when you believe in yourself, anything is possible’.”