Once considered top among world leaders in terms of providing women with significant rights, Turkey today confronts some harsh truths. Though widespread education is considered a success story, violence against women continues and the gender has yet to reach equal status with their male peers.
According to experts, the violence stems from the age-old patriarchal inequalities between men and women in Turkey. Nearly half of all women say they have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of their husbands or partners. The bride exchanges or "berdel" system that forces girls to marry relatives without their consent is often cited as a symptom of the country's strict patriarchal structure, as are "honour" killings.
Although Turkey is party to major international documents on respect for gender equality and combating violence against women, implementation falls short, according to the experts.
As a result of months of work and brainstorming with activists and NGOs, the Turkish National Assembly adopted a comprehensive law on Thursday (March 8th) to address the issue of violence against women. Based on the well-known Austrian model, the new law is expected to provide women with more protection and to punish perpetrators more severely.
Whatever the rate of implementation, the measure should initiate a change in mentality, experts argue.
On another front, empowering women and girls by providing them access to quality education and employment opportunities is a critical goal.
In this context, encouraging "female entrepreneurs" became a current practice through EU-funded projects, as well as the micro-credits supplied by relevant ministries.
"As long as we give them a chance to gain their money through micro-credits, they will be bosses of their own benches and they will regain their independence and a decent life," ruling AK Party Istanbul deputy and Health, Family, Labour and Social Affairs Commission Deputy Chairman Turkan Dagoglu told SES Türkiye.
The education of girls has also been subject to various national campaigns, either led by the government or civil society initiatives.
"We are trying to provide all girls with educational opportunities. And for this, we are knocking on almost every door; we are directly reaching the families who [refuse to send] their children to school, and we are convincing them," Dagoglu said.
"In primary education, we reached 98% of compliance, while in later education that percentage drops unfortunately to 68%," Dagoglu said.
Under representation of women in politics is another widespread concern, especially when compared with peer European democracies.
Bertil Emrah Oder, a professor at Koc University in Istanbul, tells SES Türkiye that gender stereotypes reinforce the inferior status of women in society and do nothing to address this problem.
However, Dagoglu sees some improvement in the numbers. "Among the 78 female deputies in the 550-seat parliament, 45 are with the AKP, followed by CHP with 19 deputies," Dagoglu told SES Türkiye, acknowledging however this is not enough.
According to lawyer Vildan Yirmibesoglu, it is crucial to ensure active representation of women within all decision-making mechanisms, either through elections or by nomination.
In parliament, "we should reach the critical threshold of 30%, while the [level of] representation in the local governments is still at 1.2%," she told SES Türkiye, adding that as long as central or local governments are without women, they cannot resolve the problems of women.
"Otherwise, we will still be known as a country where oppressed women live under the burden of violence, a lack of education, poverty, and unemployment," Yirmibesoglu emphasised.
In this regard, Oder suggests implementing gender quotas and supporting or facilitating measures in favour of female candidates. "Not only party regulations, but also electoral laws and the Law of Political Parties should prescribe such affirmative action measures and relative sanctions as to their violation. Otherwise, such measures would be ineffective", she told SES Türkiye.
By Menekse Tokyay for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 08/03/12
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