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European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy
Women's rights in Turkey
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Meeting organised by Dutch MEP Emine Bozkurt in the European Parliament
Brussels, 29 April 2010
Dear Ms Erdogan, dear Minister, dear parliamentarians, dear guests,
It is a great honour to speak today on two related issues which are of great importance to Turkey: the future of Turkish women, and the path of Turkey towards the European Union.
Let me start with a quote which in my view is the perfect vision of a modern society. A society where men and women have an equal share in social life. A society where men and women support each other.
Let me quote: "Our nation has made up its mind to be a powerful nation. One of the requirements of today is that we should ensure the advance of our women in all respects. Therefore, our women, like our men, will be enlightened and well-educated."
This quotation dates back to 1923 when Kemal Atatürk founded the Republic of Turkey and provided women with the same rights as men, including full political rights.
Atatürk launched many reforms to give Turkish women equal rights and opportunities. The new Civil Code, adopted in 1926, abolished polygamy and recognized the equal rights of women in divorce, custody, and inheritance. The entire education system from the grade school to the university allowed for mixed schooling.
In 1930, the right to vote was granted to women for local elections, in 1934 for parliamentary elections – well before a number of today's EU Member States.
As a result, 18 women, among them a villager, were elected to the national parliament. Later, Turkey was the first country in the world to have a woman as a Supreme Court judge. One can only admire these achievements of the young Turkish nation.
Ever since, Turkey has continued its efforts to give women their justified place in society. Last year for instance, for the first time a Parliamentary Committee on Equal Opportunities for Men and Women was established. The right to paid maternity leave of 16 weeks was extended to many public servants. Awareness-raising activities and gender sensitivity training programmes for public service and health personnel took place.
These efforts deserve our full respect, and you can be assured that the Commission, in its assessment of progress in Turkey, gives them credit.
However, on this crucial issue like on many others, there is no room for complacency.
As you all know, as part of the accession process, Turkey will need to continue to align its national laws with the legislation of the European Union.
The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union makes it very clear. Equal opportunities for women and men are considered to be one of the fundamental aims of the Union. As a result, gender equality issues are taken into account in all of the Union's policies, an approach known as mainstreaming.
Most importantly, women and men must have the same opportunities to support themselves and attain financial independence. We have EU directives on equal conditions in the labour market and the right to parental leave. We have common guidelines on employment, which mean that Member States commit themselves to establish policies to increase equality in the labour market.
The Lisbon target set in 2000 on female employment rate of 60% is very close to be reached [EU average currently stands at 59.1% ]. Moreover, in the framework of the new economic strategy of the EU for 2020, it is proposed that the EU sets new targets for an employment rate of 75% in 2020 for both women and men.
European laws also stipulate the principle of equal pay for equal work. Women should receive the same pay as men for the same work or work of equal value. Moreover, the so-called positive discrimination in the labour market is allowed. This means that any employer can introduce special measures to women if they are in the minority in a workplace, for instance by making it easier for them to be promoted or to undergo further training.
Europe is also making big strides in the area of education. I am happy to note that over the last few decades, women in the EU have closed the education gap. In fact, they have even surpassed men in terms of numbers of university graduates. We are now living in a Europe where women are more likely than men to go on university education and to graduate!
Let me be clear, we should not yet be content about what we have achieved. This is something I truly believe, not something I am just saying to make sure my wife and daughter will still speak to me when I get home…
Antidiscrimination issues are high on the agenda of the Commission. The Commission efforts are now focussed on the adoption of a "horizontal" directive which would extend the scope of the existing EU rules on anti-discrimination to new fields, such as: education, social protection, goods and services.
But the point I am making is that Turkey, in its path towards the European Union, will have to adopt the national laws to align itself with the European Union.
This means further efforts are needed to offer Turkish men and women the same opportunities in economic participation, political empowerment and access to education. Let me single out some key areas where progress is needed.
As regards women's access to education the gender gap in primary education has been reduced in recent years, not least due to the wide "Let's go to school" campaign of the government. This good practice needs to be sustained and improved, in particular by ensuring that girls continue to attend school at a later age and by identifying and addressing school drop-outs.
As regards women's access to employment we encourage Turkey to take action to increase the participation of women in the workforce, particularly in rural areas. Turkey ranks last among the OECD countries when it comes to women's participation in the labour market. In addition, surveys show that the situation of women in the Turkish labour market is fragile, as many are employed in the informal sector. As in the EU, women overall earn less than men for work of equal value.
As regards women's political representation Turkey needs to encourage the political representation of women, at national and regional levels, as the latest local elections of 2009 confirm. All parties need to place a sufficient number of female candidates in eligible positions.
As regards domestic violence against women we welcome Turkey's efforts to prevent honour killings and domestic violence. We welcome that Turkey's courts have started giving heavy prison sentences, including life-long sentences, to the authors of such crimes. However, the Turkish government needs to substantially intensify these efforts, by making women fully aware of their rights and by increasing the number of shelters for female victims of domestic violence.
This implies also raising the awareness of the judicial system and of law enforcement forces and public administrations in cases of domestic violence.
The Commission is ready to continue supporting these efforts financially. In line with the mainstreaming approach, promoting equal opportunities is a cross-cutting issue of our pre-accession funding.
Overall, EU financial support for gender equality and women's rights in Turkey so far amounts to over € 80 million.
Such a support has led to useful projects on a wide range of issues, from combating violence against women to supporting women entrepreneurship, active labour market measures or the establishment of shelters for women subjected to domestic violence.
Future projects will address issues such as empowerment of women and women NGOs in the least developed regions of Turkey, the promotion of women's employment and increasing the enrolment rates for girls in secondary school.
These efforts are all part of our joint endeavour: enhancing the rights and life standards for all Turkish citizens, thus preparing Turkey for EU accession.
We are all aware that things cannot change overnight, neither in Turkey nor anywhere else. We are also aware of the sensitivities at stake within the Turkish society when it comes to women's rights.
It will be first and foremost up to Turkey to strike the right balance guaranteeing the peaceful coexistence between different lifestyles and beliefs.
There is still a long road ahead of us. But your presence here today, Mrs Erdogan, demonstrates the commitment to equal rights and opportunities in all layers of the Turkish society. Thank you for dedicating your time to this cause.
I will join Turkey on this journey and assist in every way I can.