UNICEF in Turkey: Country Profile

Map of Turkey © UNICEF Turkey 2004

This map does not reflect a position by UNICEF on the legal status of any country or territory or the delimitation of any frontiers.


The Turkish Republic was founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk who instituted an ambitious programme of reforms designed to orient the political, social and economic structure of the country towards Western countries and neighbouring Europe in particular. Turkey became a member of the Council of Europe in 1949 and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 1952. Turkey has been a member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) since its foundation in 1961 and signed an association agreement with the European Union (EU) when it was known as the European Community in 1966. A customs union with the EU took effect in 1996 and ongoing EU accession negotiations were opened in October 2005.

Turkey is one of the 20 most populous countries in the world. The first census of 1927 recorded a total population of 13.8 million whereas a total of 67.8 million was returned by the last census in 2000.1 Although the population growth rate is falling, it remains significantly higher than other OECD member countries, developed countries and transition countries.2 The total population in 2007 is estimated as 74 million and it is expected to have exceeded 80 million by 2015, the target year for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).3

The geographical distribution of the population has shifted over the last eighty years from being three quarters rural in 1927 to being two thirds urban at present. A pattern of increasing internal migration from villages to urban centres can be traced back to the 1950s and the development of Turkey’s industrial base in the Northwest and Western regions. However, rural to urban migration increased markedly during the 1970s and reached a peak between 1980 and 1985 when the urban/rural balance tipped. The actual size of the rural population has not changed significantly since that time, remaining constant at just under 24 million.4

The phenomenon of migration has had a marked effect on development where provision of basic services in rural areas continues to be hindered by problems of access and security, particularly in the Southeast. The high rate of migration to urban centres also puts increasing pressure on municipal councils, straining resources for social services and housing.

The economy has been unstable throughout the short history of the Republic and a major financial crisis in 2001, the third and most significant in a decade, led to the overnight devaluation of the Turkish Lira by 40%. A system of IMF-backed reforms helped to restore stability and the economy has grown by a third since the crisis.5 Maintaining economic stability has been a national priority since -- along with the introduction of a package of political, social, economic and institutional reforms in preparation for EU accession.

The situation of women and children

Children are the country’s largest demographic group. The current estimated total of 27 million people under 19 years of age represents 36% of the total population with under-fifteen-year-olds and under-five-year-olds constituting 28% and 9% of the total respectively. The proportion of children is expected to decrease slightly to 33% by 2015.6

The series of reforms encouraged by the EU accession process have contributed to many positive changes for women and children although their situation continues to be adversely affected by broad geographical, economic and cultural disparities.

Levels of poverty have decreased since 2002, dropping from 30% to 16% when the EU accession standard of $4.30 a day is applied.7 Rates of child poverty have also dropped over the same period. However, children continue to live with a much higher risk of poverty than adults as is the case with many developed and developing countries. Approximately 35% of under-fifteen-year-olds were living in poverty in 2002 compared to 28% in 2005. Notably, the 40% poverty rate of children in rural areas represents only a minute drop by comparison with 2002.8 The annual unemployment rate for young people between the ages of 15 and 24 has remained at a consistent high of roughly 19% across the same period.9

Between 1998 and 2003, the under-five mortality rate (U5MR) dropped from 52 to 37‰ live births and the infant mortality rate (IMR) dropped from 43 to 29‰ live births.10 The IMR has since dropped further to 26‰ live births.11 However, the U5MR varies between 30‰ in the West of the country to 49‰ in the East; the rate of full immunisation for under 14 year-olds is 64% in the West and 38% in the East and fertility rates for the same regions are 1.9 and 3.7 respectively. There is much room for improvement in coverage rates for both routine and national EPI with measles at 84%, diphtheria and oral polio vaccine at 78% and tetanus toxoid at 37%.12

Indicators tend to have generally higher rates in rural areas -- particularly in the east of the country -- and similar disparities are evident in urban/rural comparisons of poverty rates: 10% of the urban population were living on less than $4.30 a day in 2005 compared to 26% of the rural population.13 Representing 5 million and 6 million people respectively, the comparison indicates a much lower standard of living and access to basic services for the smaller rural population.

Conservative attitudes to gender characterise the cultural and traditional life of Turkey so thoroughly that the exclusion of women from equal participation in public and private life is almost a matter of course. Unsurprisingly, this exclusion begins at the earliest stage when girls enjoy progressively less educational advantages than their brothers and other male peers. While roughly 7% of girls and boys attended pre-school in 2001, there were gender gaps of 8% in primary education and 17% in secondary education that same year.14

Country data shows that the primary school completion rate dropped from 89.7% to 87.8% between 1991 and 2004. The estimated drop of 3% in pupils starting grade 1 and reaching grade 5 was more or less consistent across both genders (98.1% to an estimated 94.9% for boys in 2003 and 97.1% to an estimated 94.3% for girls in 2003). However the drop in completion rates for all eight grades of compulsory education between 1991 and 2004 shows a much larger gender gap: 0.1% for boys against 3.7% for girls.15 It should be noted that the compulsory term of primary education was extended from five to eight years in 1998, prior to which time the two measures were commensurate. Nevertheless, the disparity reflects a popular tendency to withdraw girls from the education system at the onset of adolescence.

The gender gap in primary education has since closed by 15% thanks to the commitment of the Ministry of National Education (MONE) but a great deal of work remains to be done if the MDGs of universal primary education and gender equality are to be achieved.16 A comparison of the gender parity index (GPI) for all three education levels shows that the gender gap in education becomes much more pronounced in higher education: the GPI for primary enrolment was 0.94 in 2004 whereas it dropped to 0.75 and 0.73 respectively for secondary and tertiary education in the same year.17

Without the benefit of a quality basic education, let alone access to secondary or tertiary education, women are relegated to secondary roles within their families, excluded from the job market and participation in political life. Women represented only 26% of the registered labour force in 2006,18 although the rate has steadily improved over recent years, rising from 15% in 1991 to 20% in 2004.19 Participation of women in central or local levels of government is poor: only 24 out of 550 seats in the national parliament were held by women in 200620 and in 2004, only 18 out of 3,225 council heads and 834 out of 34,447 council committee members were women.21 The situation is improving in some areas: following the latest general election in 2007, the number of female members of parliament increased to 50, representing 9.1% of the total seats.

Low levels of education, entrenched social attitudes and customs also affect the protective environment for children of both sexes, especially the most vulnerable. Although there has been no systematic monitoring of the situation to date, available research and anecdotal information indicate that incidence of child abuse, neglect and deprivation of parental care is on the increase. The lack of preventive measures, policies and poor enforcement of legislation reflects a weak institutional response in this respect.

The phenomenon of child labour is evident in the informal urban economy, seasonal agricultural work and domestic labour -- particularly girls in the latter case. The last survey of child labour by the State Institute of Statistics (Turkstat) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 1999 revealed that 1.6 million children between the ages of 6 and 17 years of age were economically active.

Figures released by the Turkish Statistical Institute (Turkstat) in April 2007 indicate that 958,000 children aged between 6 and 17 were engaged in some form of economic activity in 2006 — some 5.9% of the total number of children in this age group. Among children aged 6–14, 320,000, or 2.6%, were engaged in economic activity. 124,000 of these were not attending school.22

Increasing numbers of children are resorting to street life, either as a means to support their families or to escape the stressful effects of poverty in the home. Already vulnerable and running a high risk of coming in contact with the law, the dangers of abuse and exploitation for children engaging in street life are doubled in the absence of proper guidance and care of a responsible adult. Many of them are from rural families who have moved in search of a better quality of life in urban centres only to find that opportunities for well-paid employment and better access to basic services are at a premium.23 Children working on the streets often drop out of the education system. Although this is not by any means an inevitable consequence, those who continue their studies are severely compromised in their capacity to apply themselves.

To date only 1,802 HIV/AIDS cases have been reported. However, the potential risk should not be underestimated since the disease is spreading faster in the CEE/CIS Region than anywhere else in the world. Turkey drew 18.5 million foreign visitors between January and September 2006,24 many of whom were travelling from neighbouring countries such as Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine where rates of infection are highest.

In the absence of adequate surveillance and case reporting, the actual figure for cases of HIV/AIDS infection is believed to be much higher, especially among vulnerable groups. Males account for 62% of infections, but the gender distribution is shifting. Females account for 63% of HIV-infected people between 15 and 19 years of age. Mother-to-child transmission accounts for 1.7% of HIV infections. The issue is not traditionally covered by the education curriculum or addressed by parents and as a result, adolescents tend to be poorly equipped to cope with the risks posed by unprotected sex and the concurrent risks of HIV/AIDS infection.

Children’s and women’s rights

Turkey signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on the14th of September 1990 and ratified it on the 4th of April 1995. The Optional Protocols on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography and on the involvement of children in armed conflict were ratified by Turkey on the 8th September 2000.25 A series of legislative packages between 2002 and 2004 brought family law closer to the standards of the CRC, namely:

  • amendments to the Penal Code (Act No. 5237) and the Criminal Procedure Code (Act No. 5271), which entered into force on the 1st of June 2005, making provision for:
    • raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 11 to 12;
    • a probation system as an alternative to deprivation of liberty;
    • increased remission of sentence for children;
  • the Child Protection Law (Act No. 5395), which entered into force on the 3rd of July 2005, aimed at integrating international standards into the procedures and principles regarding children in need of protection, including:
    • special arrangements for the sensitive treatment and protection of child victims;
    • an increase in the number of child courts;
    • provision of protection for children by civil society organisations.26

Turkey signed the European Convention on the Exercise of Children’s Rights on the 7th of May 1999 and ratified it on the 10th of June 2002.27 States parties to the Convention are obliged by paragraph 4 of Article 1 to specify at least three categories of family cases before a judicial authority to which the Convention will apply. Turkey applies the Convention to the following categories:

  • divorce;
  • separation;
  • custody of children;
  • parental rights of access to the child;
  • establishment of paternal affiliation by means of judicial decision.28

Turkey also acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), ratifying the Convention on the 20th of December 1985 and the Optional protocol recognising the competency of the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women which was signed on the 8th of September 2000 and ratified on the 29th of October 2002.29

Ratification of the Optional Protocol constitutes an important step since it opens the way for personal applications to the Committee. Amongst the most important legal reforms in line with CEDAW was the amendment of Article 10 of the Constitution in May 2004, making the State responsible not only for ensuring non-discrimination between women and men, but also for taking the necessary measures to provide equal rights and opportunities in practice for women in every field.30

Other modifications improving the status of women have been made to the Civil Code although the social status of women has yet to reach the desired level of gender equality.

Turkey was one of the first six countries to undertake action to combat child labour through the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) in 1992 and is a state party to six ILO conventions directly related to children, including the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention in 1999.31

However, the successful elimination of child labour will require a concerted effort by government, civil society and the private sector -- particularly employers of informal labour.


1 Turkish Republic Prime Ministry Turkish Statistical Institute (Turkstat), City and village population, 1927-2000 (Şehir ve köy nüfusu, 1927-2000), <www.tuik.gov.tr/VeriBilgi.do>, accessed March 2007.

2 Turkstat, Population, annual growth rate of population and mid-year population estimate, 1927-2000 (Nüfus, yıllık nüfus artış hızı ve yıl ortası tahmini, 1927-2000), <www.tuik.gov.tr/VeriBilgi.do>, accessed March 2007.

3 Turkstat, Mid-year population projections by age groups, 2000-2020 (Yaş grubuna göre yıl ortası nüfus projeksiyonları, 2000-2020), <www.tuik.gov.tr/VeriBilgi.do>, accessed March 2007.

4 Turkstat, City and village population, 1927-2000, op. cit.

5 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Economic survey of Turkey 2006, <www.oecd.org/eco/surveys/turkey>, accessed March 2007.

6 Turkstat, Mid-year population projections by age groups, 2000-2020, op cit.

7 Turkstat, Poverty rates according to measure, 2002-2005 (Yoksulluk sınırı yöntemlere göre yoksulluk oranı, 2002-2005), <www.tuik.gov.tr/VeriBilgi.do>, accessed March 2007.

8 Turkstat, Poverty rates of household members according to employment sector, 2002-2005 (Hanehalkı fertlerinin çalıştığı sektöre göre yoksulluk oranları, 2001-2005), <www.tuik.gov.tr/VeriBilgi.do>, accessed March 2007.

9 Turkstat, Employment situation of the 15-24 year-old age group by year and gender (15-24 yaş grubundaki nüfusun yıllar ve cinsiyete göre işgücü durumu), <www.tuik.gov.tr/VeriBilgi.do>, accessed March 2007.

10 Hacettepe University Institute of Population Studies, Turkey Demographic and Health Survey 2003, Ankara, 2003.

11 Republic of Turkey Prime Ministry State Planning Organisation Undersecretariat, Eighth Five-Year Development Plan, 2005 Programme, Section 2: Development of Human Resources, (VIII. Beş Yıllık Kalkınma Programı, 2005 Yılı Programı, II. Bölüm: İnsan Kaynaklarının Geliştirilmesi), <ekutup.dpt.gov.tr/program/2005/nufus.html>, accessed October 2007.

12 Hacettepe University Institute of Population Studies, Turkey Demographic and Health Survey 2003, op. cit.

13 Turkstat, Poverty rates according to measure, 2002-2005, op. cit.

14 Otoran, Dr N., Sayın, A., Güven, F., Gürkaynak, Dr İ., and Atakul, S., A Gender Review in Education, Turkey 2003, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), <www.unicef.org/turkey/gr/ge21b.html>, accessed March 2007.

15 United Nations Statistics Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Millennium Development Goals Indicators, <mdgs.un.org/unsd/mdg/Data.aspx?cr=792>, accessed March 2007.

16 Pfaffe, J. F. and Smulders, A. E. M., Girls’ Education Campaign, Turkey: final evaluation report, UNICEF, Ankara 2007.

17 UN Statistics Division, Millennium Development Goals Indicators, op. cit.

18 Turkstat, Employment according to population and gender excluding civil service (Kurumsal olmayan sivil nüfusun ve cinsiyete göre işgücü durumu), <www.tuik.gov.tr/VeriBilgi.do>, accessed March 2007.

19 UN Statistics Division, Millennium Development Goals Indicators, op. cit.

20 Ibidem.

21 Turkish Republic Prime Ministry Directorate General on the Status and Problems of Women (DGSPW), Main areas of employment: decision making (Temel çalışma alanları: karar mekanizmaları), <www.kssgm.gov.tr/karar.html>, accessed March 2007.

22 Turkstat, Child Labour Statistics, 2006 (Çocuk İşgücü İstatistikleri, 2006), <www.tuik.gov.tr/VeriBilgi.do>, accessed April 2007.

23 Akşit, B., Karancı, N. and Gündüz-Hoşgör, A., Turkey, Working Street Children in Three metropolitan Cities: a rapid assessment, International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), Geneva, 2001.

24 Turkstat, Monthly Tourism Statistics, 2006 (Aylık turizm geliri ve gideri, 2006), <www.tuik.gov.tr/VeriBilgi.do>, accessed March 2007.

25 Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Convention on the Rights of the Child, <www.ohchr.org>, accessed March 2007.

26 Committee on the Rights of the Child, Forty-second session, CRC/C/OPSC/TUR/CO/1, <www.unhchr.ch>, accessed March 2007.

27 Council of Europe, Convention on the Exercise of Children’s Rights, <www.conventions.coe.int >, accessed March 2007.

28 Ibidem.

29 United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (Womenwatch), <www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/>, accessed March 2007.

30 Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Thirty-second session, CEDAW/C/TUR/CC/4-5, <www.unhchr.ch>, accessed March 2007.

31 ILO, Geneva <www.ilo.org/public/english/region/eurpro/ankara/conv/ratified.htm>, accessed March 2007.

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