Say Yes, Summer 2003: Claiming The Future

Dr Nur Otaran, Ankara, Early Summer 2003

Dr Nur Otaran: It’s very much within our power to change the situation and improve rates of enrolment.
Photograph by Rana Mullan
© UNICEF Turkey 2003

Dr Nur Otaran is a researcher and consultant to UNICEF Turkey on education for girls. A committed advocate of women’s rights, Dr Otaran experienced the women’s movement in the United States during the seventies when she studied there and of course here in Turkey where the movement is very much a growing force for change. She has always worked in education and training, as a teacher at first, then at various managerial levels in both the public and private sectors. For a time, she also worked as a researcher at the Educational Science Faculty of Ankara University completing her Masters Degree and her Doctorate in Educational Psychology.

Her work has always had a focus on the education of girls and young women -- her dissertation was on Sex Role Development -- so the issue of women’s education has naturally developed as a speciality for her.

As part of our support to the Ministry of National Education’s (MONE) campaign for girls’ education, UNICEF asked Dr Otaran to prepare a booklet highlighting the importance of the issue, outlining those areas where various agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) could get involved. In order to consolidate her observations, Dr Otaran conducted a study of girls’ education in Kars, a largely rural province on the eastern border:

Economically poor, the people there endure a harsh winter climate that can last up to eight months. Apart from the city of Kars itself, very few homes in outlying villages have running water, for example, so supplies have to be fetched over considerable distances. Life is hard.

Interestingly, the women of Kars enjoy equality with the menfolk in all walks of life -- more so in fact than their counterparts in neighbouring provinces. However, they have very little time for reading and writing: everyone must work hard in order to keep their heads above water, so to speak. They have television, of course, so they get an idea about what’s happening in the world but they don’t read newspapers or books.

However, this isn’t to say that they are complacent in any way. They know what they are missing which is a start.

The act of learning, of doing something, involving yourself with others, is very important to these women. They understand that education is essential for a positive outlook and that it can influence your behaviour for the better: it puts a sparkle in your eyes. As far as they are concerned, study for its own sake, regardless of the subject, is a pleasure even though their restricted lifestyle allows no immediate outlet for what they have learned.

That said, the education of mothers is of course vital to the health and development of their children. The consequent effect is that the next generation steps up a level in their education since the foundations were laid with the mothers.

Attitudes toward education have not changed a great deal in over a decade, she says, referring to a report* from 1991 which suggests that a combination of local customs and traditions and extreme poverty is at the root of the matter:

Many people simply do not see education as being a priority, certainly where girls are concerned. Also, if the schools were in better condition, better equipped and so forth, people would be more inclined to take advantage of their facilities.

Local schools are not in good condition, generally. Understaffed and often poorly equipped with facilities and materials -- one we visited in Çerme had no running water in spite of the fact that it was flanked by two streams -- they are not an inviting prospect. Secondary schools can also be very difficult to reach and are often so far away that many are unable to meet the travel expenses. During heavy snows, families prefer to keep children at home.

It was good to see that local administrators and teachers, being painfully aware of these shortcomings, were willing to take responsibility for improving the situation. Still, their capacity to do so is limited -- they need more support from the Government. That’s another issue in itself: with over ten million children of school age, the current budget for education is inadequate.

The relatively small sum of 5,000,000 TL (US$3) required by local schools as a contribution towards running costs can be beyond the resources of many families. Most of these rural households have as many as seven or eight children. One father of nine whom we spoke to said that he could only afford to educate five of his children -- an understandable dilemma until you realise that it was summarily resolved by keeping his four girls at home. For these people, education is a critical expense, a luxury almost, and it is the boys who have priority since they will carry the family name. The girls will marry, effectively moving on to another family so where is the future in that they ask themselves?

This grim reality is a tremendous economic and social handicap for the issue of girls’ education.

A group of girls we spoke to were quite slow to answer why they were not going to school, possibly because they were with family members and neighbours at the time. One girl pointed out that she was too tall for school which confused me (she wasn’t by any means over-developed for her age) until I realised that she meant she was adolescent -- of marriageable age, in other words.

Another big handicap for girls in this part of the country is the lack of role models: there simply aren’t many women in their social circle who have finished secondary school let alone tertiary level or who are working in the professions. So they find it hard to see what an education would mean to their future.

Dr Otaran is nevertheless optimistic on the issue of girls’ education:

These drawbacks aside, it’s very much within our power to change the situation and improve rates of enrolment in order to ensure that every girl attains a good standard of education. The issue needs more attention and funding, certainly -- that’s a matter for Government bodies such as MONE to attend to at both national and local levels. We could do with a great deal more inter-sectoral cooperation as well. On the poverty issue, families in need should have financial support. Coordination between NGOs, the Social Solidarity and Assistance Fund (SYDTF) and the private sector would help on that front.

The Government’s campaign for girls’ education is an important initiative in this respect. For UNICEF, however, this is more than a question of expanding educational opportunities for girls -- that’s a start -- but it also means the systematic elimination of the barriers that keep girls from getting into and succeeding at school. I’m talking about an end to gender discrimination quite simply. We need equal opportunities for girls and boys alike.

Above all, we need to have the will to change the situation. Even in dire financial need, people have found ways around the problem because they wanted to. Take the case of Hakime: she’s from a remote village and was fortunate enough to finish her compulsory eight years education. She wanted to continue to secondary school and learn a trade but her family was too poor to meet the expenses. Luckily they managed to bring Hakime’s case to the attention of an NGO which provided financial support for transport and subsistence. She has become something of a cause célèbre locally, everyone follows her progress with great interest.

It means something for them to see their girl succeed.

* Factors Influencing School Attendance in Basic Education in Turkey with Special Emphasis on Female Participation, Dr Niyazi Karasar, The World Bank, 1991. Dr Otaran acted as Assistant Coordinator.

Dr Otaran will very much appreciate comments or additional information on the subject of girls’ education.

Read our summary of A Gender Review in Education in this issue. The full version of A Gender Review in Education, Turkey 2003 online or download the document in pdf format [PDF 969KB].

Read more about Haydi Kızlar Okula! -- MONE and UNICEF’s campaign for Girls’ Education.

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