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Turkey: 'Hey Girls, Let’s Go to School!'

©UNICEF NYHQ/2005/Beck
A young girl in Van province, where high percentages of children do not attend school.

VAN, Turkey – In hundreds of villages here, in schools and homes and coffee houses, the same question is being asked by teachers, journalists, local activists and religious leaders.

“What will it take to get your daughter in school?”

Some 500,000 girls in Turkey do not attend classes. But thanks to a major education drive, approximately 120,000 girls have enrolled in the last two years.

The campaign, dubbed ‘Hey Girls, Let’s Go to School,’ depends on a vast network of volunteers who go door-to-door to lobby parents on the value of education.

In Van, where the nationwide campaign was launched in 2003, poverty and cultural traditions have historically kept girls at home. Up to half of all girls in this eastern province are estimated to be out of school. Yet through the efforts of the campaign, 20,000 girls have enrolled for the first time.

Local efforts

On a stop in Bakimli village, a remote outpost near the Iranian border, a team of four teachers checks a list of children and nods at a mud house where an eight-year-old girl is said to be out of school.

The woman who answers the door does not appear surprised at the group gathered on her front steps – in accordance with the campaign’s closely monitored rules, volunteers visit each village regularly in order to assess progress and ensure that parents follow through when it comes time to register for school. With an air of resignation, she arranges chairs for the visitors almost before the first greetings are exchanged.

© UNICEF NYHQ/2005/Beck
Local teacher Sukran Celik visits local homes to convince parents to send their daughters to school.

“My husband and brother are working in Istanbul,” she says. “I’m afraid to stay home alone. And I don’t think my daughter really needs to go to school.”

Sukran Celik, a teacher from Van who works on the campaign in her spare time, nods sympathetically. “But isn’t it hard for you to read instructions when you go places? If your daughter is educated, she can earn money and bring in a salary and care for her mother.”

Twenty minutes later, the mother is wavering – won over by the force of Sukran’s arguments, she still worries that education will spoil her daughter for marriage. It takes a visit from the village imam, Ibrahim Yasin, to persuade her that school will make her daughter a better mother someday.

Like many religious leaders in Turkey, the imam promotes girls’ education during Friday prayers. “It is a girl’s right to go to school,” he says. “A girl must be educated. Islam tells us this.”

Above all, it is the connection between neighbors that seals the mother’s decision to send her daughter to school. “I am a role model, because I am educated,” says Sukran. “I am from Van; I am from this culture; I show them that this is what girls can be.”

Ongoing challenges

Among its many successes the campaign counts increased media visibility and support from prominent politicians, including the Prime Minister and First Lady of Turkey. Numerous spin-off projects have been created to help raise funds for schools, and a growing number of volunteers are signing up from a wide variety of professions.

©UNICEF NYHQ/2005/Beck
High school principal Bahri Yildizbas debates the merits of girls’ education with family members near Van, Turkey.

Yet persistent poverty and insufficient resources continue to plague the national education system, with dire results for children. Schools are scarce and overcrowded; conditions in urban slums and rural areas are especially bad. And for families that are struggling to afford food for their children, even the most basic school supplies can be well out of reach.  

At a community meeting in Van, women respond favorably to a campaign coordinator’s speech on the importance of education. But murmurs arise when the volunteer, a respected local high school principal named Bahri Yildizbas, tells them that it is their duty as parents to send their children to school. 

“We want education, but we don’t have the money,” says one mother. “The school is far away – it takes too much time to get there, and it’s not safe,” says another.

While these practical obstacles hamper progress, the campaign has helped create a hunger for change that promises to pay dividends for decades to come. 

According to Zozan Ozgokce, the head of the Van Women’s Association and another volunteer who visits local homes, there is a growing consensus that education is an imperative for every child. 

“When we ask women how they want their children to live, they almost never say, ‘like me.’ And when we ask the women what they want to be, they say, ‘educated.’

“It might take 25 years for the effects of this campaign to show,” she says. “But the campaign will still be visible then – because it is this generation that will show how the world can be.”


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