Speaking to Today’s Zaman in an exclusive interview, Dr. Abulaban says this year they will continue their efforts to advocate for early childhood education because it is a right and that they are also focusing on youth as well. He adds that this year they will emphasize equality as a means to ensuring that children, regardless of their background, enjoy equal rights.
Dr. Abulaban is a medical doctor who arrived in Turkey in October of last year and who has Palestinian roots. He says he is happy to be in Turkey and that he is astonished by the developments in Turkey over the last decade. Dr. Abulaban thinks when it comes to children everybody and every institution is trying to do its best.
When asked if he is a good father, he answers, “I’d rather say that I have good children.” He says he has four daughters and one son, adding that he thinks having daughters is a blessing.
Newly appointed UNICEF representative to Turkey, Dr. Ayman Abulaban, says that the recent amendments to the Constitution approved by the public opened the way for more improvements for children and that UNICEF would like to see the issue of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which Turkey is a signatory, ‘outside of politics’
When he was questioned about his own childhood, Dr. Abulaban smiled. “My father was a [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East] UNRWA employee. He was chief of education for UNWRA in Syria, but then we traveled around [with] him to some countries; we lived in Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen, following my father’s career in the UN and then in the private sector. That was very good because when you live in different countries, you get to learn about and to know [other] cultures; it gives you a lot of understanding of others, which is very important,” he underlines.
Dr. Abulaban adds that having been educated as a doctor also helps him a lot in his line of work because such training provides some skills about how to analyze issues and a desire to try to find solutions to these issues. “We are not trained only to determine a diagnosis, but how to find the best treatment among different alternatives,” he emphasizes.
UNICEF will work to improve conditions for youth
When Dr. Abulaban reiterated the fact that Turkey signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), he noted that there are some restrictions on it regarding provisions about one’s mother tongue. He says countries have a right to have and make reservations, but adds that they see these reservations as temporary.
“We believe that most of those reservations can be seen as temporary reservations. We like to deal with them as an issue to be advocated for. Countries have the right to make their restrictions, especially before they sign, before they ratify; they have this right. Our policy on that is to keep advocating, keep discussing, because UNICEF is no more than a moral authority on this issue. So, we keep talking about those things. Sometimes we do not make them our top priority, simply because there are many other top priorities. But it does not mean that we forget them or that we do not see them as important,” Dr. Abulaban explains.
He adds that they are looking forward to the establishment of an ombudsperson for children’s affairs in Turkey, because it will be a good start to taking the whole issue of the CRC out of a political context.
Recently, some amendments to the Constitution approved by the public opened the way for more improvements in the rights of children and also for the establishment of an ombudsperson system. “We are calling for the establishment of an ombudsperson. By doing this I think this could be a good start to taking the whole issue of the CRC outside of any political context. This is a country that is very active politically. Many things can be criticized easily, and we would like to see the issue of the CRC outside of politics because everybody agrees on this. We would like to see the implementation and monitoring of the CRC in Turkey be as independent as it can be,” he says, but adds that the CRC monitoring committee in Parliament is working very well.
When questioned about UNICEF’s plans for Turkey for 2011 and if they will continue their program for improving access to early childhood education, he says, “Yes.”
“It will continue to be and it is going to be our priority, simply because it is a true priority. We all know the importance of early education. Investment in early education yields more results than investment in primary education, for example. In that case, yes, it will continue to be one of our priorities. But we are also adding to that for the first time; we are going to work on secondary education as well. We know that what Turkey has achieved in terms of enrollment in primary school and [related] statistics is excellent, but it is a challenge to keep children, both boys and girls and children from different backgrounds, in secondary schools. Then they can have higher education. Now we are trying to talk not only about quantity but also quality of education, because there is an issue of quality. This will be one of our priorities,” he adds.
He also emphasizes that the other issue they will address is the youth and their problems.
“I think Turkey is very proud and it should be proud to be a country of young people. And this is an added value that even Europe realizes about Turkey because they are suffering from being aging countries, in a way. But youth have a need for special attention, not just in Turkey but all over the world. In our new program we are focusing on youth. We are trying to help with types of partnerships and by bringing some added value to the bulk of the work done by the country. We are trying to help the youth to improve their skills and their capability to make the right decisions about their lives so that they know where to get the right information about their health, education, interaction and about the importance of having a part in decision making. So this is one area … and we hope this will make them more employable and can contribute to the economic production of the country. They become more productive, and then they can contribute to their country,” he asserts.
Dr. Abulaban says the new UNICEF vision is based on equality and means that children from different backgrounds should enjoy the same rights. “Different children need to have the same access, the same treatment and the same enjoyment of their rights; these children come from different geographic backgrounds, [and are] underprivileged because of geographical or economic reasons or because of their different ethnicity or a disability. In Turkey, for example, we see there are many such issues. We had discussions with officials here. They mentioned social inclusion, which is perhaps another way you can describe equality,” he explains.
Dr. Abulaban says marginalized, underprivileged children need to be attended to so they can be ensured equal rights with others. This is a simple thing and the ombudsperson can be very helpful in enforcing this, he states.
Children are participating in decision making in Turkey but it can be better
When questioned about the level of participation of children in the decision-making process, especially regarding issues directly related to them, Dr. Abulaban says there is good news from Turkey on this subject.
“Participation is one of the four pillars of the CRC -- the others are survival, development and protection. There are efforts by the [Social Services and Child Protection Agency] SHÇEK and Parliament. Children came from all over the 81 provinces, one girl and one boy from each city; they spent some time in Parliament. They went through the process of debating issues that are of concern. I realized that those children are not the children of the mayor, governor or other high officials but the real representatives of their peers. The parliamentary committee that is monitoring children’s rights is very active, and children are able to reach them. But is this enough? I think for all countries it is not enough. There is always room for improvement. And we would like to see a new national youth strategy focusing more on this. Reform of the school system and education is going on. The education system needs to address to this particular issue of participation. There are many things to be done, but whenever a child goes to school, the education system should allow for participation. Outside of school, wherever children are, we have to make sure that there is room for children to have a voice. Again this brings us to equality: Do the children with disabilities have a voice to participate? Do children coming from underprivileged marginalized groups, children from remote rural areas, do they have a voice? We should not be content with what is going on and leave it there, instead we should try to improve the situation for children,” he asserts.
Sometimes it is better not to cry out for the best interests of the child
When asked if it is difficult sometimes not to cry out for the children whose rights are violated by the authorities, his advice is keeping in mind that the best interests of the child is the objective.
“The most important principle for us is the best interests of the child. As long as we make this our target, we will always cry out. But if crying out is going to hurt the best of interests of the child, we keep it to ourselves. Sometimes addressing issues in closed meetings can be much more useful, sometimes we cry out about the issue, sometimes crying out is the only way to do it. In my case, I have colleagues who had to face this type of thing and I maybe have faced it once or twice in my life having to bring some things outside, because it is the most efficient way to do it. I can see in Turkey that there are always, at least until now, ways to address these issues frankly, openly. But if it is necessary, and I hope it will not be, UNICEF will be there to strongly express our position on children’s rights.”
Dr. Abulaban also added that he wishes for all children around world to have a better year. He recalls that in 2010 there were many disasters, such as those in Haiti and Pakistan, adding, “As a Palestinian, I have a very special wish for children in Palestine, and especially for children in Gaza, to really have a better year.”