Turkish women face discrimination, violence, illiteracy despite small gains

(Photo: AA)

March 07, 2012, Wednesday/ 17:27:00

Discrimination, violence, unequal power relations, lack of education and child marriage are still problems that Turkish women face on this year's March 8 International Women's Day, which is being marked by several events highlighting the worrying issues women have to deal with instead of joyful celebrations.

“Aren't you ashamed?” asked the Association for Education and Supporting Women Candidates (KA.DER) which has been keeping track of the number of women in public offices for the last five years.

“For five years the situation has not changed. We are tired of reporting the same statistics each year. We are concerned,” said Çiğdem Aydın, representing KA.DER. The reason for their outrage was explained in the statistics they have compiled. In a nationwide campaign prior to the June 12 elections last year, they asked for 50 percent representation in Parliament, but the percentage of women who entered Parliament remained at only 14.2 percent. This is a small increase from 9.1 percent female lawmakers in Parliament in 2007. Moreover, out of 26 ministers in Turkey's cabinet there is only one woman, Family and Social Policy Minister Fatma Şahin.

In other administrative public offices, the situation is also bleak: Only 26 female mayors out of 2,924; 65 village heads out of 34,210; one female governor out of 81; five female rectors out of 103 and 21 female ambassadors out of 185. There are no female undersecretaries and no female members at the Supreme Court of Appeals, Court of Accounts or the Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency.

“What do we have in Turkey?” KA.DER representatives asked again. “Violence against women, exploitation of female labor and bodies, female poverty, female unemployment, child brides and girls who are not sent to school.”

Like KA.DER, most women’s organizations are concerned with increasing cases of violence in Turkey where at least one in three women have suffered from physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives. Last year, women’s groups did not celebrate March 8 in protest of violence against women.

Women’s rights organizations have been collectively holding their breath in the last few days following the progress of a bill intended to eliminate violence cases. Although women’s rights groups indicated deficiencies in the bill, there is still excitement about the new opportunities that the bill is supposed to provide for combating the issue of violence if it becomes law.

In a letter to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and all lawmakers in Parliament, 237 women’s groups under the umbrella of the Platform to End Violence (Şiddete Son Platformu), wrote:

“We are objecting to the fact that the law’s name has been changed to protect family, not women; that the centers which are supposed to work on a 7/24 hour basis have not been organized in a way that women’s groups demanded, which would help women to access support under one roof once they face violence; that the law does not refer to women’s shelters and sexual violence crisis centers; and that women’s organizations are not allowed to take part as co-plaintiffs in important violence cases. And we demand that changes be made accordingly.”

This was in reference to the “Draft law to protect women and individual family members from violence,” on which women’s rights groups have worked tirelessly with Şahin, particularly since September last year. There was a lot of zigzagging in the process until the law came to Parliament on March 7 with its name changed to the “Draft law to protect family and prevent violence against women.”

Concerned groups say they feel a bittersweet joy and vow to continue their struggle to voice their demands. They stress the issue of women’s empowerment and the importance of the way the law is going to be practically implemented.

“In that regard, the most important thing is political will,” activist and lawyer Hülya Gülbahar told Today’s Zaman.

When it comes to women’s empowerment, one indication of this is women’s participation in the labor force. The statistics are not promising: Only 6.7 million women are employed in Turkey (24 percent), a figure that places Turkey 101st out of 109 countries.

Turkish women’s participation in workforce low

The Women’s Status Directorate General (KSSGM) announced that the country is lagging behind targets set for women’s participation in employment and highlighting the need for radical policy changes on the issue.

Several statements, including one from the Women’s Rights Association against Discrimination (AK-DER), pointed out that women are obliged to work under circumstances that are not appropriate to them. “Heavy workloads, as well as a lack of childcare facilities, hinder married women from entering the workforce in particular,” their statement said.

Another point highlighted in that regard is that women who choose to wear the headscarf face more difficulties both in the workforce and during the job application process.

As Turkey has been making headlines in the world as a economically dynamic country, the Turkish people’s entrepreneurial courage and success have been also highlighted. However, data from the Union of Chambers & Commodity Exchanges of Turkey (TOBB) shows that there are only 80,000 female entrepreneurs out of 1.3 million.

However, a positive development has occurred for women in Turkey as the number of female managers in Turkey increased by 6 percent in 2011, reaching 31 percent in total, according to research conducted by Grant Thornton International, a global network of firms providing assurance, tax and specialist advisory services. Their research includes 6,000 participants from 40 countries, the results of which are announced on every International Women’s Day.

With women making up 31 percent of managers in the workforce, Turkey ranked 8th among the participant countries, outpacing Brazil, Russia, India and China with 26 percent, the European Union with 24 percent, Latin America with 22 percent, the G-7 countries and North America with 18 percent. The world average is 21 percent.

Most Turkish female managers are employed in the finance sector as chief financial officers or financial directors, making up 34 percent of the total, followed by those working in sales, making up 21 percent, human resources with 16 percent and marketing with 14 percent. In addition, nine percent of female managers work as chairs of the board of directors at private companies in Turkey.

Improving gender equality essential

Presenting the World Bank’s 2012 Gender Equality Report in İstanbul in December last year, Minister Şahin said that much needs to be done to raise gender equality in Turkey. Education, the minister said, is the key to improving gender equality.

“Equal opportunities must be provided for both men and women when it comes to education,” she said, also pointing out the disparity in basic education among young girls and boys in Turkey.

The solutions to gender inequality, the World Bank of Turkey’s gender equality report stated, include specific measures like better childcare services and more reasonable maternal leave policies, as well as more expansive strategies like national action plans and the commitment to reducing gender inequalities in the education system.

Lack of education seems to put women in disadvantaged situations in every walk of life. Experts agree that the greatest obstacle to escape for battered women is the feeling of economic dependence, which usually comes with lack of education.

KSSGM statistics show that nearly 4 million women in Turkey cannot read or write despite recent initiatives to fight illiteracy among women. According to the report, the illiteracy rate increases with age, from cities to rural areas and from west to east. However, the report underscores, illiteracy is more widespread among women then men.

A World Economic Forum (WEF) report also indicated that Turkey ranked 129th out of 134 countries in terms of dividing its resources and opportunities among men and women. According to the organization Social Watch, Turkey has regressed precipitously since 2004 in terms of gender equality.

Early marriage rate at 14 percent

The percentage of child marriages in Turkey -- marriages in which one spouse is underage -- is 14 percent, a study by the International Strategic Research Agency (USAK) found in a report released last year in November. Turkey has the second highest rate of early marriage among European countries, according to the USAK survey, following Georgia, where 17 percent of marriages are underage.

The report found that an estimated 10 to 12 million girls are forced into marriage at an early age every year in the developing world. In Turkey one out of every three women was married as a child.

USAK’s findings indicate that early marriages cannot just be explained by cultural factors or traditions and beliefs, saying that the practice is caused by a large number of factors including socio-cultural factors, education, gender equality in society as well as wars and natural disasters.

The report found that roughly half of the people who were forced into early marriages in Turkey are illiterate and 31.7 percent of the children forced into early marriages know how to read and write, but have no formal education.

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