Thursday, November 24, 2011

Turkey: Seeking real equality for Turkey’s women

Seeking real equality for Turkey’s women

by Idil Aybars

Ankara - Turkish women were among the first in Europe to exercise political rights with the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1924, but 87 years later Turkey ranks 122nd of the 135 countries in the 2011 Global Gender Gap Index.

Women’s rights in Turkey have a complicated track record. Turkish women gained many of their current social, cultural and political rights in the 1920s and 1930s after the establishment of the Turkish republic. In 1934, before France and Switzerland, Turkey recognised women’s right to vote and run for public office. And along with political rights, a number of important legal reforms in the 1920s and 1930s aimed to provide Turkish women with equal rights in the educational, family, work, social and legal spheres.

Today, however, there are pressing problems when it comes to gender equality in Turkey. These problems do not harm only women, but also men and society at large.

Gender equality is currently the cornerstone of democratisation and of Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, as well as a major concern of an increasingly strong women’s movement. A number of legal steps, particularly affecting the constitution, civil law and penal law, have been taken during the last decade to align Turkey’s domestic law with its international commitments.

The 2004 amendment to Article 10 of the 1982 constitution, for example, added a specific provision prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex. The Turkish Penal Code was also amended in 2004 so that crimes against women are understood within the framework of crimes against humanity, and to introduce life imprisonment for the perpetrators of so-called “honour” killings.

And at present, the government is drafting a comprehensive new law on violence against women.

Despite this legal framework, it is difficult to talk about real social equality for women. While the current government is proud to underline that Turkey is amongst the top 20 fastest growing economies in the world, its poor ranking in the 2011 Global Gender Gap Index suggests a different story. The areas where gender inequality is most pronounced are economic participation and opportunity – in which Turkey ranks 132 out of 135, and educational attainment – in which it ranks 106 out of 135.

While the global rate for female labour market participation is 52 per cent, Turkey’s fluctuates at 24 to 28 per cent, less than half of the world average. Moreover, female employment rates have been decreasing since the 1990s, due to massive migration from rural to urban areas, which implies that women previously working in agriculture and now living in cities have recourse predominantly to jobs in the informal sector, or remain unemployed due to a lack of skills and education. And women make up the majority of the illiterate population of Turkey, with around four million illiterate women today.

Turkey’s experience over the last ten years clearly demonstrates that legal equality does not inevitably lead to real equality. There are examples of good practices, including nationwide campaigns and initiatives to encourage families to send girls to school supported by increasingly active women’s NGOs. Nevertheless, their impact remains limited due to economic hardship and patriarchal social values.

Many families still do not send their girls to school because girls take on household responsibilities from an early age. Formal education for girls is thus not prioritised, a problem compounded in rural areas by transportation problems.

There is a serious need for the political will to translate legal reforms into real, practical gender equality in all aspects of life. Providing training and education for women, to empower them to become strong and independent, is a first important step. Therefore, improving both the formal education system and lifelong learning opportunities for women is of utmost importance.

Men should also be included in the effort to promote gender equality in order to challenge existing mindsets and values. Incorporating gender equality classes in the formal education system and providing gender equality training – particularly for military, police and legal services personnel – could be important first steps in this respect.

While government efforts to combat violence against women have been noteworthy, they will only be useful if they are complemented by concrete initiatives on other fronts, namely, women’s economic independence and social participation.


* Idil Aybars is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews) Copyright permission is granted for publication.