TURKEY: Firebrand lawmaker fights for the rights of the disabled

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As a tireless advocate for the disabled, Safak Pavey toured the world convincing reluctant governments to sign and ratify the United Nations convention guaranteeing rights for people with disabilities.

Now, as a newly elected opposition member of the Turkish Parliament, she’ll have to convince her own government, which ratified the Convention in 2009, to actually implement it.


Pavey, 34, is one of four disabled candidates to join the 550-member parliament, having lost her left arm and leg in a train accident. But she ran as a candidate from the center-left Republican People’s Party, skipping the required (but inevitably ignored) quota that calls for 4% of government positions to be filled by persons with disabilities. The daughter of one of Turkey’s most prominent investigative journalists, Ayse Onal, and a former art student, Pavey started stirring up trouble the night of the elections, even before the last vote was counted.

Appearing on a local talk show with Tülay Kaynarca, an MP from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) who has also worked on disability, she roundly objected when Kaynarca boasted of the achievements of AKP’s 2005 Law on Disability.

“This law has been violated today,” Pavey corrected her, referring to the fact that ballots were still not accessible to the visually impaired. “You had six years to work on these ballot papers, and yet you violated your own law.”

She acknowledges that dislodging deeply held stigmas and promoting human rights-based discourse on disabilities will be difficult in a country where disabled children are considered a punishment for sinful behavior, and communal values often trump individual rights. And as a member of the opposition, her work will be even harder.

But the laws, she is quick to point out, are already on the books. For example, the AKP’s 2005 law stipulates that all public buildings must be fully accessible by 2012. Until now, there’s been no monitoring or enforcement of this law.

“There are buildings going up everywhere,” she points out. “We should be able to fine those who don’t comply.” Other policies, like the employment quota, are theoretically already budgeted.

“In the justice and employment area,” she says, “the AKP is also not respecting their own law.” For example, a 2010 report submitted to the United Nations noted that of the 1,813 jobs allotted for disabled persons within the Ministry of Justice, not one had been filled. “The key is giving disabled people dignified work, not just hiring them as office boys or to get tea,” she says, as is often the case.

She says she looks forward to working with her colleagues on these issues, particularly with Nimet Çubukçu, an AKP member and lawyer who is an old friend. But if things don’t go her way, she’s not afraid of a fight.

“I have international law backing me up,” she says, “and I am an expert on it. I really will not spare any opportunity. If there is a need for an international campaign, I’ll start an international campaign.”

Read her lips: “Turkey will comply with every last article in that convention.”

-- Anna Louie Sussman in Istanbul, Turkey

This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.