Turkey promising in women’s rights but must lift barriers: UN representative
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Turkey was number one in 2017 for the number of companies signing up to the U.N.’s Women's Empowerment Principles, according to Alia El-Yassir, who is the UN Women Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia and Representative to Turkey.
While lauding progress to date, El-Yassir also spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about the obstacles to empowering women in the post-coup attempt political environment. “You have very good legislation in place, the challenge is the implementation,” she said, insisting that now was the time to open up the relevant communication channels.
Have UN Women projects progressed in Turkey?
Before we opened a regional office for UN Women in Turkey we already had an ongoing project about women’s political participation. Together with this program, our overall programming in Turkey is now the largest in the region as of this year. The increase is owed to refugee response, with a particular focus on refugee women.
We have continued with the women-political-participation project’s next phase, which deals with gender responsive governance and gender responsive budgeting.
Turkey has experienced shifts, and our programing has been adapting to these shifts. One of the project's achievements entailed reviewing all legislation, together with members of parliament, to see how well they align with international monitoring standards. In general Turkey has very good legislation.
How did changes in the political situation affect your project?
Our partner is the Equal Opportunities Commission in the Parliament. With the recent shift in the system, it is unclear how all the investment we made in the commission will translate into the presidential system.
You have very good legislation in place, the challenge is the implementation. We focused on gender responsive budgeting, which we would like to call transformative financing: How could financing in a different way bring about the empowerment of women? We have also worked with some municipalities and registered good progress with some.
How receptive is the central and local administration to gender equality issues? Will the next national budget be a test case in terms of implementation?
It is a matter of political buying. We see success where there has been the highest political buying.
I don’t think you can expect an immediate result. It is a dialogue. Opening a conversation is the challenge. We are looking for more engagement for instance with the ministry of finance. It is not just enough to work with parliamentarians. At the same time we are also targeting the private sector.
Last year Turkey became number one globally in terms of the number of companies signing the Women Empowerment Principles (WEPs).
To what do you attribute this achievement?
The private sector is very much engaged. You have a very vibrant private sector. The web working group they set up was around even before our expanding to UN Women. We directly engaged with this group. But to give them credit, this was not something we had to advocate. The buying was already there. So in terms of commitment Turkey is number one but I would say it is beyond just a commitment because we have been using this working group as an example globally as a best practice. It was something that the Turkish private sector set up and we worked with them on developing this implementation guide, which is Turkey specific, but it has been such a good practice that we translated it and distributed it as a tool kit.
It looks at the mechanism that measures progress. This group is building peer accountability so that they report to each other about the steps they have taken.
What is your general overview about gender equality in Turkey?
The advantage is that you have a fantastic foundation to work on; huge human capital and an enabling environment. On the challenging side, you need to address the barriers to women engagement. Women’s increasing engagement in public and economic life would benefit the country, this is something everybody agrees on. So that’s a good starting point. Economic participation is very low given the high level of human capital, and a lot of this has to do with the provision of adequate services and the burden of care work on women.
The reason women are not in the labor force is not because they lack the right kind of education, skills or because there is discrimination. It is more a question of a dearth of quality, affordable and accessible care services.
How would you rate the performances of the public sector, the private sector and civil society?
The government’s commitment rates highly but the results speak for themselves. In terms of the gender inequality index, Turkey is close to the bottom. In the private sector, the commitment is great but we need to look at what Turkey is funding in terms of corporate social responsibility programs, which can have the trap of feel good initiatives. So in terms of looking on how to implement, it is too early. We have not seen the result. In the public sector the information is also public. The numbers don’t lie. In terms of the private sector, they are only now opening up in terms of transparency.
And civil society?
Turkey has one of the strongest women’s movements historically. But I think this is a difficult moment for the civil movement and there tends to be a polarization even within women in the civil society movement. We believe this is holding back potential because internal polarization complicates work on common issues and reduces the effectiveness of civil society’s engagement with the government.
Turkey has very capable civil society organizations and academics that are driving international discourse on gender equality. This is something that Turkey should be proud of. But when we look at sustainable development challenges in terms of Turkey, the danger is the country will start to lag behind.
So polarization is holding back progress?
The political situation has created a challenge. Since the coup attempt, the processes have been put on standby. Now is the time to rebuilt trust and open dialogue channels. A lot of people support political participation. It is not only the government’s responsibility to make it happen. Civil society has an important role. As you fight to further the cause of gender equality, you also have to fight for the basic right to be politically active and have a voice in the leadership. Then you turn your attention towards reaching the sustainability target on women empowerment.
Polarization has become an increasing challenge. We have to find a bridge to move forward because we risk losing the momentum that has been built collectively.
WHO IS ALIA EL-YASSIR?
Alia El-Yassir has been acting UN Women Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia and Representative to Turkey since April 2017.
El-Yassir has been working with U.N. Women since 1997. She previously worked as the U.N. Women Special Representative in the occupied Palestinian territory. She is also part of the U.N. Development Group roster of gender experts. Before joining UN Women, El-Yassir briefly worked with the UNDP and was engaged in the education field. In addition to volunteering with a number of rights organizations, she has worked on educational media for children.El-Yassir graduated from McGill University in Montreal and pursued post-graduate studies in Education and Anthropology, with a specialization on Gender Studies, at Ben Gurion University.