Again this year, the Gulf Coast Citizen Diplomacy Council hosted a recipient of the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award.
April is Child Abuse Awareness Month. Coincidentally, Saadet Özkan, the honoree who visited Pensacola this week is working to fight child sex abuse in her homeland of Turkey.
This year marks the eleventh anniversary of the IWOC Award, for which 100 women have been recognized.
For 2017, Özkan is one of 13 recipients from places including Batswana, Columbia, Iraq, Peru, Syria and Vietnam.
“These honorees on the stage with me have fought for their rights and for the rights of others,” said First Lady Melania Trump during a ceremony March 29 at the State Department. “Each battled forces, such as governments, the courts, gender bias, terrorism, war, and corruption, and were willing in each moment to face harsh penalties, including imprisonment and death.”
As Under Secretary of State Thomas Shannon explained in his introduction of Özkan, she was an
elementary school teacher who took the rare and bold step of exposing the sexual abuse of children by the principal of a small village school.
“Even after suffering a debilitating car accident that left her incapacitated for months, she refused to back down from her claims, despite pressure from the authorities and threats by other teachers,” said Shannon. “Ms. Özkan is honored for her unwavering determination to uncover generations of sexual abuse of schoolchildren, particularly girls, and for her integrity in pursuing justice in the face of government pressure and apathy.”
“I wasn’t focused on the difficulty,” said Özkan through an interpreter following a talk before a group of local women at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola. “I was focused on the justice and fighting back because the way I see it is they could have been my child. And, the way I see those children is that they’re my children now and I’m fighting for them and there’s no such thing as difficulty.”
According to Özkan, the sexual abuse at the school went back 22 years and involved approximately 80 victims. During her talk, she noted the lasting impact on the village, particularly when it comes to education.
“The children there, starting from the ages of five and six, were subject to this abuse, so they could not read and write and they were basically used as sex slaves,” she said. “And, so it could be like 15 or 16 year old children were not able to read and that’s how it affected higher education.”
Özkan says the local authorities who were responsible for education in the city turned a blind eye to the abuse. But, her action to expose the case resulted in their forced retirement. However, she warns they shouldn’t feel comfortable because she plans to ensure they get prosecuted as the school principal has. He now faces 180 years in prison when he is sentenced next month, May 25.
Having more stringent laws on the books is one of her goals.
While visiting Pensacola, Özkan met with officials from State Attorney Bill Eddins’ Office to learn about effective child abuse statues and the prosecution of those cases.
“You have an amazing country where the laws are very well laid out for the protection of children and for the rehabilitation of such victims,” Özkan said. “I gained a lot of information about your laws and how children are protected and how they’re rehabilitated."
“We as women who have children, we raise boys and girls and we need to make them aware of the dangers in this world,” said Pam Schwartz, a member of the Board of Directors, Emeritus, of Gulf Coast Kid’s House.
The children’s advocacy center is central to the investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases in Escambia County, and it was also one of the stops on Özkan’s schedule.
“And, I so admire this young woman from Turkey, who is on her own initiating some of the support services that need to go on to help these children have a more normal life and accept themselves and not be intimated by the things that can happen with physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect worldwide,” Schwartz said.
During her four-days in Pensacola, Saadet Özkan also visited 90 Works and the PACE Center for Girls.
The two-week exchange program through the State Department concluded Thursday in Los Angeles.
When she returns to Turkey, Özkan said she plans to use her media interviews to push for tougher child abuse laws in the country. But, her first priority is the insertion of awareness training for children into their school curriculum.
“I think we focus too much on the punishment of the perpetrators. But, we need to focus on educating the children and when we do that then I think the laws will automatically change in favor of the children. So that’s what my main priority is.”