President Tayyip Erdogan defends Turkey's withdrawal from an international treaty to prevent violence against women
* Erdogan shocked U.S. and EU by announcing withdrawal in March
* Ankara says women are protected by laws, not Istanbul Convention
* Femicide levels are high in Turkey
* Council of Europe concerned about homophobic narratives
By Ece Toksabay and Ali Kucukgocmen
ANKARA/ISTANBUL, July 1 (Reuters) - Thousands of people took to the streets of Turkey's largest cities on Thursday to protest against the country's withdrawal from an international treaty to combat violence against women, a move that has drawn strong criticism from Western allies.
The protests came hours after President Tayyip Erdogan defended the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, negotiated in Turkey's biggest city in 2011 and designed to prevent and prosecute violence against women and domestic abuse.
"We will not be silenced, we will not fear, we will not bow down," chanted women among a crowd of several hundred who gathered in the capital Ankara. "We are not giving up on the Istanbul Convention," read a large purple banner.
"I find it unbelievable that the government is taking away rights instead of improving them. We wake up every day to a femicide or a trans murder and as women it's not possible to feel safe in this country," said student Ozgul, 26.
Amid a heavy police presence, more than 1,000 people, mostly women, demonstrated in central Istanbul, and there were smaller protests in the Aegean city of Izmir and elsewhere across the country.
Erdogan announced the withdrawal in March, saying Turkey would use local laws to protect women's rights and defended his move on Thursday against those who, he said, portrayed it as "a step backwards" in the battle with violence against women.
"Our battle did not start with the Istanbul Convention and it will not end with our withdrawal from the treaty," he said.
Ankara's withdrawal triggered condemnation from both the United States and the European Union, and critics say it puts Turkey even further out of step with the bloc that it applied to join in 1987.
A court appeal to halt the withdrawal was rejected this week.
Three opposition parties also pulled out of a parliamentary commission on Thursday to protest against the decision.
"We will continue our struggle," Canan Gullu, president of the Federation of Turkish Women's Associations, said on Wednesday. "Turkey is shooting itself in the foot with this decision."
She said that since March, women and other vulnerable groups had been more reluctant to ask for help and less likely to receive it, with COVID-19-fuelled economic difficulties causing a dramatic increase in violence against them.
One monitoring group has logged roughly one femicide per day in Turkey since a sharp rise five years ago.
Proponents of the Convention and related legislation say more stringent implementation is needed.
Many conservatives in Turkey and Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party say the pact undermines the family. Some also see the Convention as promoting homosexuality through its principle of non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.
Ditching the pact "will not lead to any legal or practical shortcoming in the prevention of violence against women," Erdogan's office said on Tuesday to the administrative court that rejected the appeal.
This month, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic sent a letter to Turkey's interior and justice ministers expressing concern about a rise in homophobic language by some officials, some of which targeted the convention.
(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ezgi Erkoyun, Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Alexandra Hudson and Mark Potter)