These flattering comments must be music to the ears of Turkey’s leaders, who can indeed be proud of the country’s raised profile and its growing economic weight. Important political reforms have been carried out in recent years and most analysts foresee a bright future for Turkey, but amid all the self-congratulations, a reminder that this country still faces important social as well as political issues is perhaps necessary.
Protesters in Egypt and Tunisia are rising against corrupt and repressive regimes, but they are also complaining about poverty and income disparities. Turkey is on an upward curve and it has a democratic framework, but it still faces important social challenges internally. Aside from a high rate of employment, which has decreased somewhat in recent months, Turkey still falls short of fulfilling the promises of its current Constitution, let alone the more liberal framework that most Turks dream of.
Take education, for instance, which is supposed to be free and available to everyone. The latest figures published by the Directorate General on the Status of Women (KSGM) show that 4 million women in this country are illiterate. Half of them are over the age of 50, which shows that the problem has long been entrenched in the system. Under the current government, more girls have enrolled in school, but even among the under-24 age group, close to a quarter-million are still falling through the cracks of the education system.
The latest OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey, which assesses the quality of education, also shows that although Turkish students are doing better than they were previously in several branches including math, income disparities continue to have a greater impact on educational outcomes here than in most other member nations. For the poor, upward mobility through education remains limited, largely because official funding is not evenly distributed. In the past few days, 14 school principals in the Southeast have resigned because they could no longer run their establishments with the paltry amounts allocated to them.
On gender equality, another important indicator of social development, Turkey actually lags behind Egypt, occupying the 126th rank in the index of 134 countries published in November 2010 by the World Economic Forum. Official Turkish data from the KSGM confirm this poor showing: The female employment rate has dropped to 22.3 percent in cities. More women are active in the labor force in the countryside, but most of them are unpaid family laborers. Although women have access in larger numbers to higher education, few of them occupy decision-making positions in the bureaucracy: Not a single governor is a woman and the administration counts only 7 percent female managers.
The lethal industrial blasts that rocked Ankara a few days ago have also once again highlighted health and safety issues in the workplace as well as the plight of unregistered workers, two problems that are chronic in Turkey. The latest EU progress report published in the autumn of 2010 complained that Turkey employed too few inspectors and monitoring of workplaces was insufficient, resulting in 72,963 occupational accidents being recorded among registered workers. It also noted that 44.8 percent of people in employment work outside the social security system and are therefore deprived of pension rights and labor protection.
Turkey has claimed significant diplomatic successes in the couple of years and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government can boast of important social achievements, such as a more accessible health system. But much remains to be done to narrow the gap in income and opportunities in this country. Turkey, in short, is doing well, but there is still plenty of room for social improvement.