Rights activist İlkkaracan: Turkey needs urgent initiative on gender equality

Pınar İlkkaracanSource: Today's Zaman
By Yonca Poyraz Doğan

Activist and researcher Pınar İlkkaracan has said Turkey needs to work harder in order to reverse some downward trends in women's participation in public life, and for that to happen it should start an initiative, complete with budgetary allocations and time and target-bound measures.

“We need a gender equality act. It would ensure that all measures -- from affirmative action to quotas -- regarding gender equality in all areas where women face gender-specific discrimination are undertaken,” she told Today's Zaman for Monday Talk.

“Most importantly, there needs to be a meaningful budget allocation for that. In the same way that the government has a Kurdish initiative and there is a budget allocation for that specific purpose, a gender equality initiative is urgently needed with a specific budgetary allocation,” she added.

İlkkaracan’s and other Turkish women’s concerns have been proven right considering Turkey’s position in gender-related international indexes. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report on the gender empowerment measure of the human development index which was released in October of last year, Turkey is ranked 101st out of 109 countries. A World Economic Forum (WEF) report indicates that Turkey ranks 129th out of 134 countries in terms of dividing its resources and opportunities among men and women. And according to the organization Social Watch, Turkey has been in severe regression since 2004 in terms of gender equity.

Turkey scores badly when it comes to women’s political participation as women have only 0.42 percent of seats on municipal councils, and out of Turkey’s 2,948 mayors, only 27 (0.9 percent) are women.

Answering our questions, İlkkaracan stressed that Turkey needs comprehensive policy changes to include a gender perspective in all aspects of its plans.

There have been a few gender-related international indexes, and in all of those Turkey is ranked near the bottom of the list. First, could you talk about those indexes and what they are trying to say?

One is by the UNDP, the UN gender empowerment measure, or GEM. It’s an index showing the level of female participation in the economic and political life of a country. The measure incorporates data such as the percentage of female legislators, senior officials and managers, and female professional and technical workers as well as gender disparity in earned income, as a measure of economic independence. The second one is a gender gap index by the WEF. The third one is by Social Watch, a gender equity index. And as you just said, especially after 2006, there has been a steady decline in Turkey in terms of gender equality in all these indexes.

What’s the lesson here?

The first thing is that when those reports were made public, there was an interesting reaction.

By whom?

By some male columnists and government officials.

What did they say?

They claim that these measurements do not reflect the truth even though the numbers do not lie. This is a defensive argument. These studies were done by credible experts, and the organizations are all international, plus they are not related to each other. No conspiracy theories apply here.

What is common in those indexes?

There are three main elements that are common to the indexes. One is women’s participation in political and decision-making mechanisms. It’s a well-known fact that Turkey stands badly in that regard. For example, the percentage of women in governmental executive positions in Turkey in 1994 was 15.1 percent -- we look at the situation starting in 1994 because of the Beijing Declaration in 1995, when the international community declared its commitment to the advancement of women and guaranteed to adopt a gender perspective in policies. In 2009, this percentage was 11.8. Not only was the 1994 figure very low, it’s decreasing even further. This figure is even less than in developing nations.

And what is the second element?

It is the women’s employment rate, which is 22.8 percent in Turkey. This is the lowest level among the OECD [Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development] countries. On top of that, even this figure has been in steady decline for years. Even more important, many women who are considered to be in the workforce work unpaid in rural agriculture. This does not bring any empowerment to women. That type of employment is actually a burden for women because that means she is caring for the children, she is caring for the home and on top of that she has to work in the family’s agriculture business. Another measure is the wage gap between men and women, because it is a main factor when we are talking about the gender gap. Turkey’s score is not promising in that regard, either. And the European Union has the most specific gender policies in that area: One is in regards to elimination of the gender-based wage gap, and the other one is increasing women’s employment rate. There are very specific EU directives in that regard. According to the Lisbon Treaty, the plan is to increase the employment rate of women to 60 percent in EU countries and among countries seeking EU membership. Aside from those issues, there is one more important factor, and that is women’s social security. For years we have been demanding that the government make women’s social security a priority.

‘Skewed way of understanding gender equality’
You have done a study in that area, and you produced a very comprehensive report for the Women’s Labor and Employment Initiative Platform, known as KEIG. It was formed by representatives of more than 25 NGOs. What were your findings regarding the new social security law?

The new social security law leaves women largely dependent on their fathers or husbands. It also denies adequate retirement rights to part-time workers. Another important change is that they cut post-natal financial allowances for working mothers from six months to one month. This means that there is not only less social security, but this also leads to less employment of women. If women are not secured facilities in order to be able to work, they are forced to withdraw from the workforce. It is so ironic that the changes in the social security law were made in the name of gender equality. Some politicians ask why women should be given some privileges. This is a skewed way of understanding gender equality because we are talking about two groups that do not have the same opportunities, and therefore measures are needed to ensure a narrowing of this gap. I predict that the unemployment rate of women will go even further down with this new social security law.

You were talking about the main elements that the gender indexes take into consideration and you were going to mention the third element.

That is education. Turkey has had a very bad score in that regard. There is now a lot of public and governmental awareness about the issue. There has been a significant effort to eliminate that gap. But still, the progress is slow despite several campaigns to increase schooling for girls. Then what needs to be done?

What do you think needs to be done?

There are problems regarding the effectiveness of those campaigns. One example in that regard is the one related to a World Bank program that is part of their poverty reduction program. There is a family allowance, a cash benefit, and it’s a conditional benefit. If the family sends a girl-child to school, the mothers are given a cash benefit. But the impact has been lower than expected. There should have been a better enrollment of girls but there has not been. The World Bank could not understand the reason for that. My personal opinion in that regard is that forced marriages are among the main barriers before girl-children’s education in Turkey. Most families in Turkey fear that if they send their girl-children to school, they would rebel against the family and the girls would have more confidence. I know this because that’s what families say when you talk with them. But there is lack of analysis in regards to socio-cultural factors. There is blindness when it comes to that.

So you are saying that socio-cultural factors play a big role in the gender equality debate

For years I took a position against that view because I was against homogenizing societies based on cultural factors. But now I see that this might play an important role. Making legal improvements is apparently not enough without gender equality in practice in real life. It’s striking that the mentally of the government, the state, the judiciary, etc., has not changed in that regard.

‘Government lags behind meeting citizens’ demands’

In one of your recent newsletters, I saw some interesting news in regards to a change of mentality as a result of perhaps the spread of education about women’s human rights. For example, a man has gone to women’s organizations and demanded their support in the murder case of his sister, who was killed by her husband on grounds that she cheated on him. Another example is in regards to a woman’s choice of her last name after marriage. One other example that I see in your newsletter is that a man was sentenced to more than seven years in prison because he raped his wife. This is significant for Turkey because such an incident would only provide grounds for divorce in the past, but now it is punished.

That’s right, but the government is lagging behind meeting the demands of its citizens. That’s where the problem lies. Men also suffer from gender inequality. The brother’s story in that regard is important. There are many such cases. And in the world, governments no longer wait for the readiness of the society when it comes to gender inequality. Demands are well known around the world now. There is no need to make more recommendations. We just need action by the government. Ensuring gender equality is a must for the government. The government has already signed international documents in that regard.

What should be the first step taken by the government, then?

We need concrete policies to be implemented, and for that, we need a gender equality act. It would ensure that all measures -- from affirmative action to quotas -- regarding gender equality in all areas where women face gender-specific discrimination are undertaken. Most importantly, there needs to be a meaningful budget allocation for that. In the same way that the government has a Kurdish initiative and there is a budget allocation for that specific purpose, a gender equality initiative is urgently needed with a specific budgetary allocation. Plus, we need a holistic approach. We cannot solve the problems with one ministry involved in women’s issues. There is a need for a comprehensive policy change. The state should include a gender perspective in all aspects of its plans. Mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that gender mainstreaming permeates all public budgets and policies, be it in the Ministry of Agriculture or the Ministry of Health.

Turkey also lacks specific time and target-bound measures, right?

This is what should be overcome. We need to have very specific time and target-bound measures. We can’t achieve results with circulars. Unfortunately, Turkey cannot even provide protection for women who face violence. There are only 26 women’s shelters in the whole of Turkey, where there are 81 provinces! In Germany there are hundreds of women’s shelters, and the state even provides a budget for more than 450 private women’s shelters even though there are state shelters, too.

‘Headscarf ban is against human rights’

Could you talk about the organization’s policy on the headscarf ban at universities?

Women for Women’s Human Rights [WWHR] -- New Ways was one of the first women’s organizations to support the rights of women who wear headscarves. First of all, restricting women’s access to higher education based on their headscarves is against human rights, plus it puts a barrier before women who have a right to education. But unfortunately not all women’s groups have been able to unite behind those ideas.


Read the full interview here