Women have a commission now!

01 Apr 2009


Efforts of the women's movement in Turkey continuing for 10 years have paid off with the approval of establishment of the “Woman-Man Equal Opportunities Commission” by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey.

New Horizons - Work on women rights, which has been supported by UNDP all along and has been given impetus by the EU process, made a progress. New Horizons spoke with Selma Acuner, the Coordinator for International Relations of the Association for Supporting and Training Women Candidates (KA-DER), Ankara Branch, which aims to increase women participation in politics and cooperates also with UNDP in this context, regarding the establishment of the “Woman-Man Equal Opportunities Commission”.

Seeing it as an important development, Selma Acuner states that the Commission is a great step forward, in opening up democratic spaces in Turkey and also for mainstreaming a gender equality perspective in policy formulations. It brings a new institutional dimension for equality between women and men. 

Selma Acuner: The establishment of the “Woman-Man Equal Opportunities Commission” is very prominent because it adds a new phase to the institutional dimension on gender equality in Turkey and necessitates the establishment of different institutions at all levels. In other words, a decentralized structure, rather than a centralized one, is needed; since 50% of Turkey’s population is women and they are not all the same. Different policies are needed in different regions; therefore issues on women cannot be solved in a centralized manner. Establishment of an entity at the Turkish Grand National Assembly, the highest level of decision making mechanism in Turkey, is a proof of embracing an institutional approach for the equality concept or the struggle against inequality. This is of great significance. This also shows that there is an increasing political will on the issue. More importantly, this signifies the formulation of policies demanded especially by women non-governmental organizations for the last 15 years.

Also, we have always demanded this commission, because institutions in Turkey, like state, family and market, should be transformed through a perspective based on equality between women and men. This transformation requires changes in laws as well. Institutions do not transform without any reason. Laws will be changed followed by changes in mentality and policies.

If there is a commission at the highest level, various law proposals will go through the commission which will analyze them through a perspective based on equality between women and men. The commission for instance will have the right to examine a law on public works and will share its ideas on laws concerning local administrations or finance. Indeed, how this commission will function is very crucial. Given that it works effectively, it can influence all the laws, proposals and decisions. In addition to that, in case of violation of women rights, women will apply to the commission which will search ways to solve problems directly related to women.

New Horizons: Can individuals apply to the commission?

SA: Sure. An institution like this will examine the laws in Turkey and compare them with international laws to see to what extent they are compatible or not. The commission can carry out international work and investigations outside Ankara. It will struggle against all the gender-based discriminations, there is an article which stipulates the commission to prevent and find solutions to all the gender-based discriminations. Answering each and every application in 3 months at most, the commission has so many benefits. The decision to establish the commission was made as a result of the struggle of women for 12 years.

What is more, this commission will work in close cooperation with non-governmental organizations. Demands from grass-root levels can be formulated into policies. This commission is under the obligation to do public reporting, that is sharing its reports with the public thereby acting as a monitor, which is common in European Union especially in northern countries. Reports accessible by the public mean that public can monitor as well. Thus, this is a prominent development concerning democracy.

NH: The women movement has a long history in Turkey. Why was the “Woman-Man Equal Opportunities Commission” established recently and not before? Did the civil society have a role in the period leading up to the establishment of the commission?

SA: I will summarize the history which UNDP itself was part of. The General Directorate on the Status of Women was established in 1990s. During that time UNDP had a project on the participation of women in development. In addition to enhancing human capital, examining legal documents through a perspective based on equality between women and men and establishing relevant institutions, one of the aims of that project was to institutionalize the equality between women and men equality. A recently implemented UN Joint Programme is in fact a continuation of the project... In the context of that programme, gender equality commissions were established in the municipal and provincial assemblies of 6 pilot provinces.

There are many actors including women organizations, members of parliament, academics and related institutions, who led to the establishment of the commission at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey...Women organizations started to plead more strongly this institutionalization especially after the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995-1996. Thus, members of parliament gradually started to be interested in the issue. Finally, in an effort to progress in EU accession negotiations, four political parties at the Turkish parliament cooperated to establish the equality commission. We should not overlook the pressure of women organizations on the issue.

NH: Well, as the coordinator for the international relations of the one of the most important women's organizations in Turkey, what do you think of the women's movement in Turkey and the cooperation among women's organizations?

SA: Let me say that when the Turkish Criminal Code came to the agenda in the EU accession process, women's organizations with very fragmented perspectives got together under Women's Penal Code Platform initiated by the “Women's Human Rights” project. The women's organizations increased awareness, carried out discussions and technical work so as to change around 30 articles in the Turkish Criminal Code. After the necessary amendments were achieved, all organizations went back to their mandates. Turkey is one of the rare countries where different women's organizations can come together when a common purpose emerges.

NH: What is the situation in Turkey now? What should the Commission do regarding woman-man inequalities in the laws?

SA: Equal Status Act should be passed now. To give more information on the law, I can say that it is a law, present mainly in northern countries, which deals with inequalities faced by women at a workplace or establishing gender mainstreaming plans at workplaces and discrimination of women regarding wages. There have been efforts continuing for many to create an Ombud system in Turkey, in fact we demand the establishment of equality between women and men Ombud in Turkey.

Starting from 1990, there have been thirty EU reform packages and many changes demanded by women were made in the Civil Law, Turkish Criminal Code and Labour Law. There is a paradigm shift in the Turkish Criminal Law. That is, for the first time ever, women are regarded as individuals. According to the previous Turkish Criminal Code, when a crime is committed against a women, that was deemed as a crime “perpetrated against the family or social order” therefore the perpetrator would be punished less. Now, the crimes against women and the girl-child are considered as “crimes perpetrated against the individual” and there is sentencing. This is a real paradigm shift achieved by the common efforts of women organizations and the parliament.

Currently, there are four articles in the Turkish Criminal Code that need to be changed. One of them is about obscenity. The meaning of obscenity should be clarified, for there are punishments on that. Secondly, there were modifications on virginity tests in the Turkish Criminal Law. Still, the law allows virginity tests to be done for girls without their permission. The argument is that: “Can we get a 6 year-old girl’s permission at the court?” If I am not wrong, in Germany they found a way to deal with it. A girl is accompanied by a psychologist who interviews her. The article should be modified in such a way that a state should not have a say on women’s body. Thirdly, there is an article which states “relationship based on mutual consent between people in the ages of 15-17”. It is a problematic article...Fourthly; people with different sexual orientations are not protected in the Turkish Criminal Law. In fact, EU has directives on the issue.

Regarding the Labour Law, I believe that it should be overhauled again since was passed very rapidly. There are serious concerns about job safety of employees. For example, “sexual harassment at workplace” is seen as a crime but the definitions are not clear or there is discrimination in recruitment, so certain definitions should be clarified.

Women are absent in political life!

NH: What is the situation of Turkish women in politics?

SA: In Turkey, there is a crisis concerning women’s participation in politics. Only 9% of members of parliament are women in the Turkish parliament. With that percentage, Turkey ranks the last in Europe and we have 50 women members of parliament. This is the progress achieved since 1934. In general, the critical threshold is around 187. That means we should have at least 187 women members of parliament so that decisions taken at the parliament can be influenced. 50 women members of parliament are not a lot, yet this is a significant development.

In conjunction with this, the percentage of women mayors in Turkey is 0.56%...It is not even 1%; local administrations are very salient. When municipal and city councils are taken into consideration, it is around 1-2%. Now imagine that there are approximately 3,200 city council member. Only 300 of them are women. Currently, there are 18 women mayors. Imagine that only one metropolitan mayor, all the rest are mayors of districts...Now can you say that women are in decision making mechanisms? Of course, no...Can you claim that women can make decisions for their sake? No you cannot. Who makes decisions on behalf of women?

Men members of parliament, men mayors, men municipal council members, men city council members always do so...I have no objection to that of course men will be present, women, however, have their own problems due to the fact that they are women. For example in rural areas, which route will mothers use to take their children to school?  What kind of municipality services is needed for that? Nurseries and early child nursing services are needed. Since these are not the issues faced firstly by men and they are not priorities for men. When you hear a woman mayor candidate, you can notice that these are the first issues on her agenda. So, this is where the change will come from. Let me point out that both women and men should be included in the issues of equality between women and men. I personally do not believe that a person should be a member of parliament or a mayor only because that person is a man or a woman.

NH: Well, a woman can be sensitive but can lack experience. A person who knows how to manage a project is necessary. What do you think?

SA: That can happen over time with the help of a team, for me sensitivity is of top priority. We need a 30% quota, the Law of Political Parties and the Election Law should be changed.

Currently, Turkey is a member of the European Women’s Lobby. Regarding that we have a coordination group under which are 80 organizations. The European Women’s Lobby launched a 50-50% campaign in Europe. In fact, Europe has the same problem and Europeans say: “We can no longer tolerate the underrepresentation of women.” Now the target is 50% in Europe.

For many years we have talked about the Quality Law. Quality is not a quota; it is a law on its own which is based on equal citizenship. The Quality Law is on our agenda, there can be changes in the constitution after the local elections. We would like to have the Quality Law included in the constitution. We would like to see changes in the Election Law and the Law of Political Parties. If we cannot achieve these changes and only depend on bylaws of the political parties, women will not have any chance when  there are challenges in democracy and political parties do not function well. Because politics is very much related to money and nepotism based on coming from the same place. Well, you live in a different city with your spouse, to be in politics means you work even in the evenings. Recently we had news, I am not sure where exactly was that. A woman becomes a mayor candidate and her husband strives to preclude that and eventually they divorce.

There is this mentality in Turkey “my wife is in public, how that can happen?” still gender-based discrimination in jobs exists in Turkey. Women should be at home taking care of children and the old; men produce, make money and are in public. Law-making is related to public and is not done at home. Therefore, women do not have a voice in the areas where laws are made and income is distributed or rights are defined. How can we talk about democracy in such a situation? Firstly we should solve this problem. The key to that is the equal distribution of responsibilities between men and women on family, patient, senior and child care and backing it with in an institutionalized manner. That is exactly on the agenda of the Commission on the Status of Women this year.

Solutions should be sought in a structure where state, private sector, local administrations and parents are involved. Sources should be earmarked for that. Otherwise, only women are burdened with care of family. Maybe there are not obstacles in the laws concerning women’s participation in politics or public but if there are not policies to support women and services provided for child care, women simply stay at home. It is said that women have a responsibility to take care of children. This is really a serious problem. The issue of inequality in Turkey can be remedied by legal directives, regulations, political determination and in a holistic manner which includes the participation of all related parties. As you might notice, I rarely mention the concept of equality, I talk about inequality which exists. Inequality should be reduced, equality is an ambiguous concept which does not exist.

NH: What are the results of your cooperation with UNDP and how is the current project with UNDP going on?

SA: One of the projects carried with UNDP was about providing trainings in various cities on creating awareness on gender mainstreaming. Development experts and high level officials also participated in those trainings and we had meetings with governors. Then, other trainings were provided in consultation with deputy governors and mayors. This was two years ago. The main aim of the project was to increase awareness among high level government officials on equality between women and men. It was in fact a salient training full of fruitful discussions.

The second project with UNDP, which recently came to an end, involved trainings on the participation of women in politics. These trainings were held in many places, significant work was implemented. As I pointed out previously, the inequality between women and men is not an issue to be resolved in a centralized manner. That is, training several people in the centre is not enough to educate the whole Turkey. Enhancing the human capital is the most prominent aspect of our collaboration with UNDP.

What is more, awareness raising activities on inequality between women and men  and its follow-up...Not only is awareness created but through the reports and interviews, the progress is measured in accordance with certain criteria. Since this monitoring is conducted by NGOs, reliable data can be obtained and practical policies can be formulated. I think the biggest achievement of UNDP’s work in this area is creating a medium to enable the formulation of practical policies. This is important as UNDP cooperates with NGOs in this regard. Since NGOs are also involved in UNDP’s projects with the Turkish government, outcomes obtained are substantial. Getting realistic outcomes is not an easy job.

For instance, realistic data on violence is not always accessible. Through the trainings held in cities and rural areas, it is possible to collect data on women’s challenges in their daily lives. In this respect, our cooperation with UNDP is very valuable also in terms of enhancing human capital. There are many women in Turkey who are conscious about participation in politics, thanks to these trainings they run for office in local administrations. I remember that in the previous general elections there were women candidates from Trabzon. One of them was on TV saying that she participated in the trainings of KA-DER and UNDP. She made a great speech and struggled for the rights. Now we see such developments and they will continue at local administrations level.

NH: Are there striking examples in other countries regarding the women participation in politics or eliminating the inequality between women and men?

SA: Argentina is the best case in point. Until 1994, there was not any quota and women were not represented and later that year quota was imposed. In the next elections in Argentina, representation of women was more than 20%, currently it is around 40%.

NH: What percentage does the quota stipulate?

SA: 30%, that is the critical threshold. They are now pulling up this number.

NH: How was the quota imposed? Was it through the pressure by women organizations?

SA: Sure...There is a very robust women movement in Argentina, like in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. Demands coming from grass-root level, that is women organizations, have always been transformed into policies in those countries some of which have had quota for long time. Some of the countries did not even benefit from quota, they have a high ratio of women due to pressure applied to political parties.

In Norway, for instance, women and men must be represented at 40% in the private sector. After that, women and men can be in competition but %40 must definitely be applied. Spain is a great recent example. Zapatero won the elections. I always say that every country needs one Zapatero. First of all, he ensured that the ratio of woman-man in the cabinet is 50-50, that is 8 women and 8 men. Now women outnumber men in the cabinet. What is more, a pregnant woman was sworn in as the minister of defense which was done on purpose. Thus, they immediately implemented the political decision and the quota. Portugal is now doing the same thing.

NH: I think Sweden is also a case in point. All the women members of political parties threatened to disengage and there was an initiative to establish a political party only for women.

SA: This is was in fact occasionally done not only in Sweden but also in other northern countries. They pose the threat of disengagement if candidates are not women. But keep in mind that Sweden has a system based on collective bargaining, Turkey on the other hand does not have it. Thus, when women threaten, that can have a domino effect, so politicians should behave carefully. In comparison to Turkey, Sweden has a smaller population and the Swedish political party system is structured in a much more democratic manner than ours.