Kader Sevinç is the representative for the European Union of the Turkish Social Democrat party, the CHP, in Brussels. The op-ed was first published on the Social Europe Journal website.
"Gender equality is the main pillar of a democratic society and economic stability. Today’s politicians, legislators, judiciary authorities, bureaucrats, teachers, academics, business executives and civil society leaders in Turkey should focus more intensively on the establishment of a “gender equality culture” in order to bring Turkey to the standards of a 21st-century democratic society.
Turkey has a young, dynamic population with aspirations to live in an economically prosperous country with a positive outlook for their future. It is the responsibility of all political parties in Turkey to work together to improve its score card on gender equality and bring it up to the standards of the European Union.
Kemal Ataturk, with his innovative vision back in the 1920s, realised the vital role women should play in transforming Turkey into a modern nation and thus launched numerous reforms for gender equality in society.
Polygamy was abolished and the equal rights of women in divorce, custody, and inheritance were established. The entire educational system became mixed, from primary to higher education.
Turkish women obtained voting rights 45 years before Switzerland did, as well as rights to be elected as a member of parliament.
Already in the mid-1930s, 18 women were elected to the National Assembly, and later a woman was appointed to the Turkish Supreme Court of Justice for the first time in the world. Women’s rights in Turkey are mandated by the Civil Law, passed for the first time back in 1926.
During the early years of the Turkish Republic, tens of thousands of well-educated women contributed to the development of the country as doctors, lawyers, judges, engineers, scientists, teachers, writers, administrators, executives and creative artists.
Ataturk tried to built his social reforms on gender equality, his vision for a modern Turkish society could not be successful otherwise.
Until the early 21st century, gender equality in Turkey had made significant progress. By the year 2000, the number of women in the labour force had reached almost 40%, with women in top management positions in both the private and public sectors.
Turkey had already had a female prime minister; as well as female ministers of foreign affairs, economy, social affairs, interior and a supreme court judge.
In 2010, a group of women protested against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the International Women’s Meeting in Istanbul for his statements that “men and women are not equal” and “all women must have at least three children.”
Later, in 2011, the “Ministry of Women and Family Affairs” was replaced with the newly established “Ministry of Family and Social Policies.” The prime minister’s decision was implemented despite massive protests by women’s organisations.
Various government departments protecting women’s welfare and well-being were brought under the control of the new ministry. Meanwhile, female participation in the labour force decreased to below 30%.
Breach of international agreements and legal acquis of the EU
Critics suggest that such practices violate international agreements signed by Turkey and also the legal acquis of the EU. The international agreements signed by the Turkish government impose responsibility on Turkey to pursue policies and laws that strengthen gender equality in order to end physical violence and social discrimination against women.
By abolishing the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs, the mechanism to ensure gender equality was eliminated. This means that women in Turkey’s current political mindset are not recognised as individuals with civil rights, but instead simply as an element of the family.
Emma Sinclair Webb, researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Turkey, expressed her concern about such developments: “This is a very risky step to take in a country where violence against women is so common.”
According to the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the roots of violence against women could not stem from problems within the family. The decisions of the international court underline that violence against women is an indicator of human rights violations, discrimination and the inequality of men and women. At least five women are killed in Turkey every day.
Nevertheless, the word “woman” has been taken off the name of the relevant ministry.
According to Hulya Gulbahar from the “Platform for Equality” (an NGO active in Turkey), this heralds the end of pro-active state policies related to gender equality: “Violence against women is not only experienced within the family. Discrimination in political representation and participation and sexual harassment at work are also forms of violence.”
Gulbahar says that the state abandoning this field constitutes a clear breach of all the international agreements signed by Turkey.
The current state of gender equality in Turkey
The incumbent Turkish government has proposed and implemented several projects to improve gender equality in Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan appointed a woman as the Minister of Education in his previous cabinet.
However, the facts and data point to a big failure in the government’s actions in this field. Nevertheless, many Turkish women still expect this government to reverse the current negative trends.
Moreover, independent of any political intentions in Ankara, Turkish women and the NGOs throughout the country are firmly committed to raising Turkey’s gender equality standards to the level of the best performing countries in the world on the issue.
Gender equality and equal opportunities have the potential to become the driving forces of Turkey’s future as a socially and economically competitive society.
Turkey’s performance on gender equality could in fact recover from its current parlous state. As a social democratic party, CHP will continue to fight by carrying the torch of “Women’s Civil Rights” lit by a democratic and republican vision, standing against gender discrimination.
CHP believes that strengthening women’s rights and opportunities will bring significant economic, social and democratic benefits for all the citizens of Turkey and Europe.
In CHP’s social democratic vision of Turkey’s future, the EU membership process plays a crucial role. Gender equality is in this respect a key issue that transcends all other fields of integration, such as democracy, economic growth, employment, education, the information society, rural development and regional development.
In fact, gender equality is at the core of genuine interaction between Turkey’s EU process, its social and economic development, and its contribution to Europe’s global competitiveness.
All surveys underline that Turkish women are staunch supporters of EU membership, even more so than men. They are the major supporters of accession. However, statistics and realities speak for themselves; the problem is very transparent.
So the question is: What will the EU do? What would the EU do if such trend started in a member country today? What else does the EU need to know to stop discrimination, political pressure and violence against Turkish women? What do European values say about all these things?
The EU’s enlargement to Turkey currently seems to be a victim of the Cyprus issue, which produces disproportionately negative effects and weak political visions on both sides.
Consequently, the EU’s credibility and transformational power on Turkey are being weakened. Unfortunately, as in the fields of democratic reforms and social development, gender equality issues stay as the part of the problem of Turkey through the EU process.
In fact, they could become the part of the solution. The solution, once again, lies in re-engaging Turkey on the path towards membership."