The Battle Over Turkey’s Women

Many governments around the world are seeking to increase women’s social and economic inclusion. A key motivation is to stimulate future growth of their national economies. We wonder: Which of the following statements correctly describes the status of women in Turkish society?

A. More women are better educated
B. More women work
C. Women face more pressure to have children
D. Women face broader setbacks

A. Better educated … is correct.

Ninety-nine percent of Turkey’s young girls now complete primary school as of 2012, according to World Bank data. That is up from 94% in 2004 — and in line with the OECD member countries’ average as well as that of other high-income countries in the region. (By comparison, in Pakistan young girls have a primary school completion rate of just 67%).

In addition, 83% of high-school aged girls in Turkey are enrolled in secondary school (as of 2012). That is up from 73% in 2002. And 64% of young Turkish women are now enrolled as tertiary-level students. That is up significantly from a mere 22% in 2002 – and well above the rate in most countries in the region.

Women who invest more time and effort in their own education are generally more likely to work, as jobs matching their skills become available. Many women, especially in urban areas, have found jobs in Turkey’s expanding service economy.

B. More women work … is correct.

Turkey has traditionally had a very low percentage of women participating in the labor force. Their labor force participation rate bottomed out in 2004, at 23.4%, according to World Bank data. Ten years later, it had reached 29.3%.

For comparison, more than half of all women in Indonesia, another major Muslim-majority emerging market country, are part of the workforce.

Turkey remains at the very bottom of all 35 OECD member countries.

However, among women in Turkey who have a university education, the labor participation rate is almost on a par with the EU average, which is 71.8% percent (EU 27).

Over the past two decades, progress in the labor force participation rate of women has been particularly pronounced in Turkey’s urban areas. While only 10% of women born in the mid-1950s were part of the labor force, this compares to 40% for women born in the mid-1980s.

Growing aspirations to enjoy a modern middle-class life style have provided a push for women to enter and remain in paid work.

The Turkish government has sought to facilitate this by improving access to quality childcare and part-time work, so that women could return to work after giving birth. Even so, the majority of Turkish women do not return to the labor market after marriage and childbirth.

C. More pressure to have children … is correct.

Conservatives in Turkey are keen on ensuring that Turkey’s fertility does not fall below the replacement level. They are concerned that women’s economic empowerment and the expansion of job opportunities for women causes a decline in fertility.

However, the most recent Demographic and Health Survey by the government shows that the fertility rate in Turkey has stabilized at 2.26 children as of 2013, almost identical to the 2.23 children observed in 2003.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan believes it is a national, religious and moral duty for all women to have at least three children. In line with that, the government has established financial incentives that increase for each additional child a family has.

This policy has been fervently opposed by liberal urban women – and supported by Turkey’s rural and religiously conservative voters.

D. Women face broad setbacks … is correct.

In 2003, when Turkey’s new AK Party formed the government under then-Prime Minister Erdogan (now the country’s President), it had an ambitious reformist agenda. While committed to conservative Islamic values, it was also dedicated to growing the country’s economy. Ensuring that women are better educated has long been a key part of the reform agenda.

In recent years, however, progress has stalled. In fact, there is considerable pushback now, due to conservative social norms and mixed political messages on the role of women in Turkish society.

A worrisome indication of just how far a rollback is underway in Turkey becomes evident in the recent parliamentary debate over child marriages, which is especially widespread in the country’s southeast.

Erdogan’s conservative social policies conflict directly with his desire to have Turkey exit from the so-called middle-income trap and join the select group of the largest economies in the world. In fact, Mr. Erdogan wants to rank among the ten largest economies on earth by 2023, the year when the Republic of Turkey’s 100th anniversary rolls around.

That is just seven years from now. Women’s limited participation in the workforce means his country loses around 25% of its potential GDP. Conversely, if Turkey reached gender equality in labor force participation, the country’s per capita income might be increased by as much as 22%. That one move would bring it up from its current level of $10,970 to about $13,383.

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