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Winning the gender gap war in Turkey

©UNICEF Turkey
Haydi Kizlar Okula! - the girls’ education campaign in Turkey.

By Fazile Zahir

FETHIYE, Turkey, 25 July 2006 - The meeting was called for the early evening so that the men would not bake in the heat of the day. They gathered solemnly in the Guvecli village square and listened as the young father outlined his ideas to them. They would not be bullied, he said, they would stand firm and be united. No one should tell them how to bring up their families or how to run their lives. Other voices rose in support, dark brows nodding in encouragement as his arguments rang a common chord. Their way of life had sustained them for generations, and they had seen the benefits of their principles.

Each of the older men at the village gathering had at least six children and knew that when he returned home they would all be there to ensure his comforts and needs were met. The outsiders proposed to take away one of the most important parts of their honor and their households. A show of hands served as a vote and the decision was unanimous. None of the men in the village - fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers and cousins - would allow their daughters to go to school. They vowed to stand resolute in the face of the current government campaign, and 100 young girls stand condemned to a fate of ignorance and illiteracy as a result.

The vote was prompted by the incursion into the village of the government's "Come on Girls, Let's Go to School" campaign. Guvecli is 30 kilometers from Van and has no school of its own. Populated by Kurds, there are 150 houses containing 2,000 people. This month eight teachers went to the village and knocked on everyone's door to talk to them about educating their daughters. These teachers are the foot soldiers of the government's complex and multi-stranded grassroots movement to increase the number of girls at school.

Roughly a million girls of primary-school age are not going to school in Turkey. In some provinces (primarily in the southeast) more than 50% of girls between six and 14 years of age are unschooled. The "Let's Go to School" crusade was launched in Van in 2003 by UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Fund) and the Turkish Ministry of National Education. The efforts of the government, the media and hundreds of volunteers have made great strides in redressing the gender imbalance in schools, and villages like Guvecli are becoming less and less common. The village men's vote was condemned in the papers as an "agreement for ignorance" and as being behind the times. Turkey is making good headway against these old attitudes: 10 years ago the female literacy rate stood at 72% (73rd in the world), but the current level stands at a much more respectable 82%.

Parents offer many reasons their daughters should not attend school, the most common of which is that they cannot afford it. However, the government has taken measures to manage this argument. It gives away free textbooks and offers a monthly stipend, the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT). Other reasons are used as a fallback - that schools are of poor quality or far away, that their pubescent teenagers cannot wear headscarves and thus their honor is at risk, that co-educational schools will corrupt their daughters and render them unfit for marriage, and that the children are needed to work (seemingly only the female children).

Many of these are excuses used to disguise the fact that parents see no value in girls being educated. In fact, it is considered a threat, for an educated girl may not be the subservient, quiescent wife that is valued in these rural Kurdish areas. A girl with education is a woman with options and choices, and that threatens centuries-old male-dominated societies.

The campaigners remain undaunted, and the highest levels of support from the prime minister and his wife to national television and newspaper promotions have ensured that progress is being made. Twenty thousand girls in the Van area alone have been enrolled, and 40,000 extra girls were entered for schooling in the policy's first year of implementation. In 2004-05 that figure rose to 120,000.

In August 2004, UNICEF trained and deployed 13,000 teachers, nurses, midwives, social workers and other volunteers. They were all armed with "blue books" full of at-the-ready counter-arguments to the traditional justifications for non-enrollment of girls. Volunteers also discuss the availability of the CCT monthly stipend and the benefits of educating girls, including better family nutrition, lower infant-mortality rates, higher potential family income, and more significant contribution to the household and community at large. The most direct approach, employed in the southeastern province of Sanliurfa and elsewhere, is that eight years of schooling is compulsory; otherwise, "you are breaking the law".

Sukran Celik, a teacher from Van and one member of the vast network of volunteers who go door to door, explained how she tries to persuade parents to agree: "I say to them, 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 you."

If Sukran can't get through to the parents, she can rely on the backup of the local imams who promote girls' education during Friday prayers. Ibrahim Yasin, a village imam, said: "It is a girl's right to go to school; a girl must be educated. Islam tells us this."

Although there are many obstacles that hamper the progress of the campaign, a new attitude is forming in Turkey's southeast. There is now a hunger for change that promises to pay dividends for decades to come. Zozan Ozgokce, the head of the Van Women's Association (and also a foot soldier), said 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'."

UNICEF country representative Edmund McLoughney said: "Sending a girl to school is a way to transform society and generate progress among the poorest, most marginalized families of the country." He underlined the shifts in ancient habits that it causes: "Just getting families into the habit of sending their girls off to school every morning can break the practice of generations. It may not change the attitudes of the present generation, but if their daughters get an education, they will want to send their own daughters. They won't need to be pushed anymore."

It seems that Turkey is winning the gender-gap war and that its future involves empowered and educated women.


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