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The state of women in Turkey
The UNDP started issuing Human Development Reports in 1990. In the past three decades, there have been two countries that rapidly climbed the scales to reach the report’s “very high human development” category: Singapore and Turkey. Note that the populations of these countries are 5.6 million and 82 million, respectively.
Turkey had an impressive economic development report and transformed itself from an agrarian economy into a bustling industrial country. Amidst this rapid shape-shifting, the single most important failure has been on the role of women in the country. Why?
Let us look at the figures. The female labor force participation rate for the women of working age (15-64 years old), is only around 34.8 percent. The same figure is 74.9 percent for men. In Germany, 75 percent of working-age women are employed, and in Japan, 73 percent are. Turkey’s economy is producing with one hand behind its back.
Given demographic trends, aging is bound to become an important issue in Turkey in about a decade, meaning that younger people are going to have trouble paying for the retirement of older people. One way to alleviate this problem is to bring more women into the labor force. That’s what Shinzo Abe has achieved in Japan, in the last decade and that’s what Turkey could do.
There are a few reasons to be hopeful about the future of women’s employment in Turkey. First are education rates. There are around 8 million university students in Turkey, 48 percent of whom are women. The rise in the share of single-person households from 4 percent in 2002 to 16.8 percent in 2019 lies in the rising number of university students, which means that kids can leave their homes at an earlier age. This makes them more independent and more likely to seek employment.
Second is the rapid rate of urbanization. When I was born in the early 1960s, the share of urban population in Turkey was around 34 percent. Now it is beyond 75 percent. This is changing lifestyles, allowing women to have a greater say in public and private institutions.
The third reason to be hopeful is technology. The internet exposes kids and young people to diverse messages and role models from all around the globe. In “Coevolution: The entwined futures of Humans and Machines,” computer scientist Edward Ashford Lee notes that “technology shapes culture, is shaped by culture, and is changing very very fast.” With each pulse of innovation, the world as we know it changes a little faster.
There is one other essential data point for our European friends hoping to look beyond political noise and daily trivia. According to the 2020 TEPAV survey on Salafi radicalization, 87.7 percent of Turks gave unqualified support to the idea of women participating the labor force, while 86.3 percent support women’s education. Even for those for whom religion is very important, those ratios are 83.5 percent and 85.8 percent, respectively. That is the new norm now.
As everywhere else in the democratic world, Turkey’s political parties are deeply divided, but the advancement of women provides a rare point of agreement across battle lines. Perhaps the most symbolic issue that led to the conservative rise in the 2000s was the ban of headscarf-wearing women from universities. That debate is now over.
The challenge for Turkey’s political class going forward will be to rally around the cause of women’s empowerment and specifically, employment. The country’s future depends on it.