Why more Turkish women don’t work
In Turkey, a narrow victory in April’s constitutional referendum granted President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unlimited powers, calling into question whether women will benefit from the economic reforms promised by this conservative strongman infamous for his anti-feminist views.
“A woman who refuses maternity and gives up housekeeping … is a half [person],” Erdogan said in a June 2016 speech. The Turkish government’s policies have mostly been in line with this view.
Measures enacted over the past decade paid women to take care of their children, or granted them longer unpaid leave. However these policies did little to relieve women of unpaid work duties that keep them from earning money to support their families. Authorities also refused to enforce laws that require corporations to offer on-site child care so more women can return to work after childbirth.
Experts argue that not only women, but also private companies and the economy, stand to benefit from changing course in Turkey and offering women affordable childcare options.
Adding one year of preschool education in Turkey could increase female labor force participation by 9 percent, and gender parity in employment could increase per capita income by 22 percent, according to the World Bank.
In Turkey, 89.6 percent of children are taken care of by their mothers, according to data from TurkStat, the country’s official statistics agency. Only 2.4 percent of children are in child care facilities.
As a result, only one of every three women in Turkey participates in the labor force — the lowest rate among the 35 OECD countries — mostly in Europe and North America. Although in the Middle East and North Africa region the average is 28 percent, Turkey, a European Union candidate, often compares itself with its Western counterparts. In neighboring Greece, the labor force participation rate for women is 59.9 percent and in Sweden it’s 79.9 percent, according to OECD data from 2015.
Contrary to popular belief, Turkish women are not staying out of the labor force because of their level of education or the society’s conservatism, said professor İpek İlkkaracan, a prominent economist at Istanbul Technical University (ITU) who is known for research on unpaid care work.
In a striking study, İlkkaracan demonstrated the labor force participation rate among urban, single, female high school school graduates in Turkey is 63 percent whereas this rate falls to below 30 percent for their married counterparts.
“The problem is not that women are not entering the labor force, it’s that they’re leaving once they get married,” İlkkaracan said.
According to one study, when a Turkish woman gets married the time she spends on unpaid care work increases by 49 percent, whereas men’s decrease by 38 percent.
Yet even while two-thirds of Turkey’s women sit out of the work force to do unpaid care work at home, the country is home to a unique corporate child care experiment that the United Nations is holding up as a model for other nations. Yeşim Tekstil, a textile factory in Bursa, Turkey’s fourth largest city and an industrial powerhouse, has offered its employees free child care on site since 1987.
This year, UN Women and UN Global Compact recognized Yeşim’s 30-year-old preschool as a model for other companies looking to create a more attractive work environment for mothers. In January, representatives from Better Work, an International Labour Organization-affiliated NGO dedicated to improving workers’ conditions, visited Yeşim to study how similar child care facilities could be implemented in Jordan.
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