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Turkish children's rights in the spotlight

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News | 11/19/2009 12:00:00 AM |

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a document Turkey has signed and ratified. However, the lack of juvenile courts and an independent public guardianship system, together with widespread child labor, suggest a difficult future for children in Turkey

Almost 20 years after Turkey adopted the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, or CRC, much remains to be done to guarantee some of the basic rights of the country’s children.

When world leaders gathered at the United Nations on Nov. 20, 1989, to sign a special convention on children arguing that all persons under 18 years of age needed special care and protection, they aimed to increase global awareness of the idea that children have human rights as much as adults do.

The convention is the first legally binding international instrument ensuring basic human rights for children living all over the globe.

Turkey signed the treaty Sept. 14, 1990, two weeks before the World Child Summit was held at United Nations headquarters in New York. The document was later ratified Dec. 9, 1994. Since then, Turkey has done much for children, but there is much left to do, as most of the rights of children in the country are still only on paper.

The CRC, for example, specifically addresses the issue of the arrest and imprisonment of children. According to the convention, “the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law, and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.”

As a signatory to the CRC obligations, Turkey should implement a rehabilitation-based response to child offenders so that there will be less chance of them re-offending. But since Turkey does not yet have a reliable juvenile court system, high criminal courts continue to try children, who are still subjected to insecure social and physical conditions during the trial process, in violation of the international convention.

Kamil Tekin Sürek, deputy chairman of the Labor Party, or EMEP, said the arrest and imprisonment of children is a cause for “deep concern.”

“Children are not being tried at juvenile courts and are not being treated as juveniles,” he said. “They are being treated as terrorists, contrary to the international convention.”

Turkey made an amendment to the country’s anti-terror law in 2006 that made it possible to try minors between the ages of 15 and 18 as adults when the crime is deemed to involve terrorism.

In the same year, Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that children taking part in demonstrations supported by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, could be charged with aiding or acting in the name of the organization.

The European Union expressed concern about Turkey’s lack of a juvenile-court system in a report issued last November on Turkey’s progress as an EU candidate country. Under growing pressure, the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has put forward a draft to help children who have been imprisoned under the anti-terror law.

The draft, which is still in Parliament, aims to protect children who throw stones at police from facing time in prison under the anti-terror law. According to the draft, new amendments will be made on the relevant articles of the judicial penalties given to the children. 

[HH] Minorities a stumbling point

When ratifying the convention in 1994, Turkey reserved the right to interpret the provisions of articles 17, 29 and 30 in accordance with the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and the Turkish Constitution. These articles deal with ensuring the rights of children to be educated in their mother language.

Politically, Turkey only extends the convention’s articles about minorities to those people the country officially considers to fall into that category. Turkish nationals of Greek, Armenian and Jewish descent are the only officially recognized “national minorities” in Turkey under the Treaty of Lausanne.

Nesrin Gökalp, a member of the Child Commission for the Diyarbakır branch of the Human Rights Association, or İHD, calls Turkey’s reservation a serious obstacle preventing minority children from receiving an education in their mother language.

“Turkey consciously reserved its right to interpret the provisions of these three articles because all lawmakers knew the possible consequences in advance,” she said. “It seems difficult for Turkey to change its position because minority families would probably file a lawsuit for their children to have the right [to be educated] in their mother language.”

[HH] Promising progress on newborn care

Despite increasing services and programs on child health as part of the country’s drive for EU accession over the last 15 years, observers say Turkey’s efforts are still below the world average in terms of improving the care of newborn infants and their mothers.

According to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, Turkey still has the highest infant-mortality rate among OECD countries despite the ongoing improvements that have been made in the Turkish healthcare system.

“The infant-mortality rate in Turkey has fallen dramatically over the past few decades, down from about 190 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1960 to 22.6 deaths in 2006. Nonetheless, the rate of infant mortality in Turkey remains four times higher than the OECD average of 5.2,” the organization wrote in a report titled “OECD Health Data 2008: How Does Turkey Compare?”

Neonatologist Murat Palabıyık, however, believes that the OECD’s report on infant mortality in Turkey is not a reliable indicator in determining how much the country has succeeded in preventing infant mortality.

“Infant mortality has drastically decreased in Turkey. We were experiencing 60 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1980. Today, the percentage of infant mortality is 20 deaths per 1,000 live births,” said Palabıyık. “This progress was made through the medical healthcare services. We are trying to attain the [same] level of infant mortality as in the EU.”

The EU has witnessed a significant reduction in mortality during recent years. In the course of the last four decades, infant mortality there fell from 28.6 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1965 to 4.7 deaths in 2007.

[HH] Survival without parental care

The lack of an independent public guardianship system is still a systematic handicap damaging the mental development of institutionalized children. Although authorities have significantly worked to improve the quality of orphanages, institutional care has adverse effects on the social development of young children.

“Children in institutional care have suffered from social problems, thinking problems and attention problems,” psychiatrist Tarık Kutlar said. “These children should be rehabilitated because most of them have had mental disorders.”

According to the 2005 figures issued by the Turkish Social Service and Children Protection Institution, Turkey has a total of 202 institutions that actively provide services to 20,000 children.

[HH] Child-labor rate high

Child labor is prohibited in Turkey under all circumstances until 15 years of age. However, many families need their children to assist with household income in light of deteriorating economic conditions. Thousands of school-aged children are thus either living or working on the streets, with most of them employed at full-time jobs for low wages.

According to a survey by the Prime Ministry’s human-rights department, Turkey had at least 30,891 children living on the street in 2008. 

Another survey, this one by the International Labor Organization, or ILO, showed that female child workers in Turkey worked around 30 hours a week. According to the ILO survey, Turkish child laborers worked the third-longest hours among the 16 countries studied. Only children in Mali and Senegal worked longer hours.

[HH] Self-control on child protection

Although not much research has been conducted on the situation of boarding schools, newspapers have published several news reports regarding sexual-abuse cases at such schools in recent years. A case involving a teacher’s sexual abuse of four girls in a boarding school in the central Anatolian city of Kırıkkale, for example, hit the headlines in 2005.

Lawyer Ekrem Uysal believes the mainstream media does not have a sufficient self-control mechanism in reporting abuse cases in the schools. 

“The way the media reports the abuse does not contribute to the right perception of children’s reality in Turkey,” Uysal said. “Most of the reports were based on an approach that makes the child an object rather than a social subject.”

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