Women's Rights and Status in Turkey

"Our immediate aim is to … deepen democracy in Turkey." (Photo: Mustafa Ozer / AFP-Getty Images)

Recently, Manuela Paraipan was in Turkey. She took in the Tekfen Philharmonic, of course, and availed herself of an opportunity to interview Yusuf Kanli, editor in chief of the English-language Turkish Daily News (see "Without Secularism Turkey Couldn't be a Democracy").

In addition, she participated in a roundtable discussion on women's rights and status in Turkey with Aygen Aytac, Berna Bayazrt Baran, and Asli Sahin of the United Nations Development Program.

Aygen Aytac, Communications Officer, UNDP

Manuela Paraipan: Aygen, what can you tell me about the projects you currently have for women.

Aygen Aytac: On women, we have actually a project called socio-development of the gap region, which is the region known as Southeastern Anatolia.

Within it, there are three components, women, youth, and children working in the streets. And, for each of these groups we have certain activities, according to their needs and our aims. And, for women, we do, for example, give entrepreneurship courses and we teach them how to make necklaces, needlework, etc. This project has been ruled in nine provinces, but in three of them, we opened bazaars every Saturday, where they could sell their products, food or handmade jewelry, and other things.

We helped women to establish cooperatives, so that they could give receipts, sell in an authorized manner their products, and we have another project similar to this one, in Southern Anatolia, for small entrepreneurships, for both men and women. But, we did have some specific courses for women. Some opened small businesses, restaurants after the training, so that was helpful to them.

What were the problems of these communities? Why did the women not work before UNDP intervened?

You have to keep in mind that these are very poor women, with no qualification, and they could not find jobs. Even the men in the family are unemployed. Plus, that is a very traditional area we are talking about, where women do not work outside their home — they only work in the farm, with the family. So this was a new concept for them.

We also have a microfinance project. This is not related with women only, but women also benefit from it. We do not do anything on the ground, but we are trying to gather information and to get the state, parliament, and the N.G.O.'s to work together.

What is the UNDP relationship with the state institutions?

We work with the state's institutions very closely.

And the necessary funds?

Usually, the U.N. does not have many funds, but we take government money, or private sector money and we use it in the development area. So, we are actually directing, channeling their money, and we implement the projects on the ground in cooperation with the N.G.O.'s and with the support of the local officials.

Berna Bayazrt Baran, Program Associate, UNDP

Manuela Paraipan: Please, tell me about your work here.

Berna Bayazrt Baran: I am in charge of the regional development portfolio, and we are doing our best to include the women component in all of our projects.

In our Eastern Anatolian program, for the entrepreneurship component we focused on women, too, and there have been some successes. But, it hasn't been as broad as the one from the Southeastern Anatolia.

Eastern Anatolia is a relatively traditional geographic area. Women there cannot go out very freely, are not very well engaged in economic activities, and there is not much of a civil society movement to support them, and that is one of the major problems we have met in this region. We have founded and supported the entrepreneurship association of women, but there are now new initiatives, women coming together and doing some productive work. What we did was to encourage women to enter into various businesses and basically into production. We have not focused directly on their rights, or other gender issues.

What about the women in urban areas?

At the urban level, we have concentrated our efforts on institutional development, working with women N.G.O.'s and organizing courses. At the rural level, we worked with men and women to provide them with information that can boost local development, and for women we had done specific trainings on hygiene, family planning, etc.

We have produced a study of the problems we have found in Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia, and made some recommendations based on our findings and ground observations.

In our projects, we have the support of the governors, foundations, and N.G.O.'s that work within these communities. So, a part of our mission is to improve the skills of these foundations and N.G.O.'s who have a solid base in those respective communities. Generally speaking, we help them modernize their institutional and marketing capacities.

On a people level, we offer support in term of showing how they can sustain the quality of their products, how to choose the appropriate products and designs, how to look for places to sell their merchandises, like the regional markets, fairs, bazaars, hotels, and shops in major cities such as Istanbul and Ankara. Also, we have fruitful relations with foreign companies which are interested in Turkish hand made products, Turkish textiles, or food.

What do men, in the conservative areas think about UNDP efforts to emancipate women? How do they react to your trainings?

It is in fact sometimes difficult, but I think that working with the N.G.O.'s from that specific community has some benefits. They have linkages with that community, with the people, local institutions, etc.

Although some of the women do have troubles with the men, most are allowed to attend these courses. Usually the community centers where courses were being held are in close proximity to their homes, so from there they go straight home. It's not common for them to walk around, freely.

Sometimes, our staff talks directly with their husband, brothers of fathers, or asks the social services to interfere, but we already have a decent number of women who do attend these workshops.

Did you have to get in touch with the religious local or regional figures?

Not for all of the workshops, but occasionally when we provide some gender sensitivity courses to women, we contact the religious leaders.

You cannot change people mentality in two days trainings, and we know that, but there are initiatives going on, and at least some things are now out in the open, to be further addressed.

Asli Sahin, Women in Politics Project Assistant, UNDP

Manuela Paraipan: What can you tell me about this specific project.

Asli Sahin: Now we are trying to establish communications with the provincial presidencies of the political parties in two selected provinces, which are Ankara and Adana. The reason we picked Ankara and Adana, is that we took some criteria from the 2002 elections, that is, the cities that we are going to work with, have to have at least 10 M.P.'s and at least one has to be a woman. Our immediate aim is to encourage women to enter politics, and to deepen democracy in Turkey. With this project, we are not trying to change the electoral law, we are not aiming at a change of legislation, although we would welcome it. This is a project of 11 months, which ends in December.

Do you have a quota for women to be elected in a party and then in the parliament?

No, we do not.

Would it be better for women to enjoy it?

Sure. Definitely, we have to have it. I mean, all the women working for this project are pro quota. In the last elections, there were some women organizations that pushed for the quota change but it did not happen, unfortunately.

Now, again the women N.G.O.'s are talking about having a quota, if we want more women in parliament, since it is not going to happen by itself.

Who is opposing it?

It is not easy to change the mentality of men; it's not easy for men to give up a certain number of seats to women.

We have group meetings, and we try to bring all the political party leaders that have representatives in parliament, and now only six parties have, and leaders of other parties, the municipalities, UNDP, and women associations to discuss together this important issue.

To our disappointment, not all the political party leaders came, but they did send envoys. However, many men who are active within the parties came to our meetings, as well as local level officials.

We had a preliminary report that had some policy requirements for adapting, and integrating women at a local level. This report was very well received by UNDP's partners. At UNDP, we will continue to discuss this issue with those in charge, because we cannot change anything without the support of men.

I want to add something here, the women who are pushing for this quota, they do want a legislative change, and the number that is being discussed is 30 percent.

Most of the political leaders that accepted our round table meetings said that they are pro quota. If things move in the right direction, it actually can happen in 2009. We want women to integrate, but the regulations they [political parties] make, place women candidates at the bottom of the list, so there are almost zero chances they'll get elected.

Also, we asked for a more equitable representation of women at a local level, which sometimes can be more effective for the community than, let's say, a place in the parliament.

How many women do you have now in parliament?

Only 4.4 percent of the current parliament are women, which means 24 out of 550 seats.

According to the U.N. millennium development goals for Turkey, we are aiming at 17 percent or 94 seats by 2015. We have asked for women support units within the parties, and we, as well as the women N.G.O.'s we are working with, are ready to offer expertise and support to the parties, to implement our demand.

Does UNDP cooperate with the EU in this respect?

We will be in touch with women from the European parliament that can be a role model for women in Turkey. Their experience and expertise in the international political arena will be an advantage for the Turkish women.

Manuela Paraipan's trip to Turkey was sponsored by the European Cultural Foundation.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Manuela Paraipan.