Istanbul could become a global hub for UN’s work on women

Istanbul could become a global hub for UN’s work on women

Interviewing Alia El-Yassir, the acting U.N. Women Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia, one realizes once again how Turkey provides a contradictory image to the world.

El–Yassir did not mince her words about the current situation in Turkey in terms of gender equality and women’s empowerment. After all, the facts speaks for themselves. Unfortunately, Turkey ranks near the bottom of most rankings when it comes to gender equality.

She was also frank in her warnings on how political polarization in Turkey is holding back progress on women’s empowerment. She formulated, diplomatically, how restrictions imposed on civil society are also forming a barrier to improving gender equality.

But in the same interview, which was published on March 5, El-Yassir also noted that Turkey ranked first in the world in terms of the number of companies that have signed up to the U.N.’s Women’s Empowerment Principles.

As is the case with so many issues, there is more than one picture that depicts the reality in Turkey.

As the interview’s space was limited, it was not possible to include all of El-Yassir’s comments. One such comment was her explanation of how the private sector has championed gender equality issues.

“The Turkish private sector has a view on the world. A lot of them are taking in international brands and they are exposed to ideas developed in these international headquarters,” she said.

In other words, the fact that Turkish companies are globally connected has exposed them to issues like gender equality and women’s empowerment. As a result, as El-Yassir suggested, instead of showing resistance they tend to be quick to endorse policies in that direction. This single example again demonstrates just how imperative it is for Turkey to remain connected to the world.

Refugee women

El-Yassir’s remarks on the U.N.’s projects to address the problems of refugee women also presented a mixed picture in terms of Turkey’s approach. On the one hand, she did not hide her appreciation for the support Turkey has provided to Syrian refugees.

“It has been said many times but it is important to reiterate. The incredible support that the Turkish government has been providing to refugees, especially in terms of the high level of services accessible to them, cannot be emphasized enough,” she said.

But the conversation took another turn when I asked whether the presence of Syrian women in Turkey was a factor holding back progress in improving women’s conditions. For example, claims of polygamy - something we thought we had left in the past - are on the rise, as well as the rise in underage marriages, which is a problem that Turkey has been struggling with for years.

El-Yassir underlined the word “claims” in my question and asked about the difference between reality and perception.

“You have to tackle both. If you talk to organizations for refugee response this kind of bridge between the refugee community and the host community is a key challenge area where the smallest advance has been made. There is still mistrust,” she said. As an example, El-Yassir spoke about how the women-only center set up in Gaziantep for refugee women is also open to local women but they avoid coming there.

Finally, even if Turkey is giving a mixed picture in terms of gender equality issues, this has not discouraged El-Yassir from lobbying to make Istanbul a hub for the U.N.’s work on women issues.

Operational since 2011, U.N. Women is a United Nations entity and has its regional office in Istanbul.

“Istanbul is well connected and the government has been a generous, welcoming host. There is huge potential for convening both regional and international meetings, so it goes beyond the region. We are trying to advocate for Istanbul to be a global hub as well,” El-Yassir said.

Barçın Yinanç, hdn, Opinion