The previous periodic review of Turkey, which ratified the convention in 1995, had taken place in 2001.
On several aspects of child rights, Turkey has made significant progress but the overall picture contradicts a headline in the Sabah daily, which claimed, after the Turkish delegation presented its case in Geneva, that Turkey got a “top mark from UN rapporteur” on child rights. This conclusion was based largely on the fact that Turkey had raised compulsory education from eight to 12 years.
The reality, of course, is more challenging. Yes, increasing basic education to 12 years is a good thing in principle, but the new system and the educational outcomes it will deliver have yet to be tested.
As things currently stand, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child raised several concerns in the field of education: about the huge regional disparities, the large number of drop-outs, a gender gap that subsists even if it has narrowed, and the discrimination suffered by several groups, on the basis of gender, poverty, disability, but also ethnicity.
The committee urged Turkey to lift its reservations to Articles 17, 29 and 30 of the convention to extend rights to all groups of children, including those, such as Kurdish children, who are not recognized as a minority. Lack of education in their mother tongue constitutes an “educational disadvantage.”
Not surprisingly, the committee also highlighted the situation of minors caught in Turkey’s repressive judicial system. While its report welcomes the 2010 amendment to the Counterterrorism Law (TMK), which lowers sentences and requires that minors under 18 be tried in juvenile courts, it also underlines that the changes are not always implemented; children still suffer lengthy pre-trial detention and are sometimes held with adults when they are arrested. In fact, the UN committee “expressed its deep concern about the reports of ill-treatment and torture against children, especially Kurdish children who had been involved in political assemblies, in prisons, police stations, vehicles and on the streets.”
The concluding remarks list numerous other problems, such as the lack of cooperation across agencies, limited financial and human resources allocated to building a proper infrastructure to support the rights of the children and insufficient data collection, which makes measuring progress or assessing implementation of legal changes difficult. While Turkey has adopted a Law on Child Protection (2005) and a National Child Rights Strategy for 2012-2016, the committee notes that the country still needs to “include specific time-bound and measurable goals” in a “rights-based approach.”
Awareness that children are individuals with rights of their own, rather than the possession of their families, is increasing, but the committee deplores that the UN convention and the rights it confers on children are not properly integrated in school curricula.
Child labor has declined, but many youngsters are still employed as seasonal workers, which often interferes with their education. While the convention views any person under 18 as a child, Turkish labor laws allow work at 15. The report also points out that while the lower limit for marriage is 17 for boys and girls -- 16 with the approval of a judge -- forced marriages at a younger age persist, particularly in rural areas, and girl children still face violence and the risk of “honor killings.”
The 2002 Civil Code removed the parents’ “right of correction,” but no legislation explicitly prohibits corporal punishment at home, although it is banned in schools and institutions. The practice, it is noted, still prevails in educational establishments and in homes.
Turkey will have five years to address these shortcomings before its policies are reviewed again by the UN committee in 2017. Taken as a whole, the concluding observations paint the picture of a country that is taking timid steps in the right direction when it comes to children’s rights, but one in which the dominant patriarchal mindset continues to hinder rapid progress.
Notions that children should be free to express their views, their opinions should be respected and their best interests taken into account are still not understood at all levels of society. Before its children can truly enjoy the rights enshrined in the UN convention, Turkey still needs, in the words of the convention, “to change traditional perceptions of children as objects rather than subjects of rights.”