Yaprak’s 13 years old – every week she travels from her village in the mountains of eastern Turkey to her boarding school an hour away. Speaking for her companions, she says:
‘We have an aim. We are going to study. I want to study until the end. I want to finish university. I want to have a job.’
The eastern Turkish province of Van is home to Turks, Armenians and Kurds. Conflict between these communities has exacerbated poor living conditions. Now, the Turkish government has extended compulsory education for all children, including girls, up to the age of 14. Where traditionally education is taken ‘out’ to remote villages, the Turkish approach is to bring the children to the schools. Children in Turkey are either being transported into towns and cities or even sent to boarding schools. The reasoning is that the standards of remote education centres are difficult to monitor and maintain. In addition, by bringing children together from different communities it is hoped cultural and social differences will be overcome. Is this a workable solution? Parents are often reluctant to send their children, particularly girls, on arduous and often dangerous journeys just to attend school. Will they be convinced that it’s important that their children spend eight years at school? How will they be convinced that this is a good idea?
Turkey is a country where literacy and education rates have traditionally lagged behind neighbours like Greece and Bulgaria. In 1997, it embarked on an ambitious campaign targeting those most deprived of education – young teenage girls.
Yaprak’s part of the country’s massive education drive, 8 years compulsory schooling for all children – adding an extra three more years of study to the existing five years of mandatory learning. It’s costing Turkey $3 billion dollars a year to achieve these ambitions. The aim is to ensure that 11-13 year olds don’t miss out and to bring education levels closer to European standards, as Turkey works towards becoming a member of the European Union.
Dr Huseyin Celik, Minister of Education, explains: ‘Turkey is working hard to be part of the civilised world in every area. Turkey does not want to be perceived as a third-world country and the most important pre-requisite to being part of the civilised world is education.’
So far, this year, for the first time in its history, Turkey’s spending more on education than defence. Before 1997, one in three rural children aged 11-13 were not in school – most were girls. Turkey’s ‘big bang’ approach to education reform meant that almost overnight rural families were forced to send their children to nearby towns – to complete the three more years of study. And as a result, school enrolments for rural girls have soared.
Yaprak along with 400 other girls are enrolled at the only boarding school in Ercis – one of 14 created especially for rural children in the remote eastern province of Van on the border with Iran.
Yaprak’s mother is pleased that her daughter has this opportunity – which she herself never had. ‘In our time they were reading the Koran and women were covered, there were no schools. Now there are schools – the situation is different’¦ I like the idea of her becoming a doctor. God willing she will become a doctor.’
There is still resistance in conservative areas like these to the idea of proper education for girls. Amberin Zaman, The Economist‘s correspondent in Turkey, explains: ‘The fact that it’s mandatory is terribly important because especially in rural areas – short of criminalising not sending children to school, people very often wouldn’t send their children to school.’
And this is confirmed by one of the day school pupils, Nurhan Altun: ‘We all want to study but some of our families might not send us if it wasn’t compulsory.’
The reforms involve the closing of many small rural schools, building larger urban day and boarding schools and prohibiting children under 15 from working – major changes in the lives of poor rural families. Almost 150,000 children are now enrolled in boarding schools – a third are girls.
Yaprak’s father is supportive: ‘I’m very happy. I’m doing my best, I’m helping her schooling, I’m encouraging the other girls in the village who aren’t attending to go to school . I’m telling other people that my daughter’s attending and they too should send their daughters.’
Kiymet, her oldest sister, now 22, regrets that compulsory education came too late for her. ‘I wasn’t able to go, if I had a chance now I would continue from where I had left off but I don’t think I have that chance because they say it’s your time to get married.’
But not everyone sees it as progress. ‘It’s a very male-dominated part of the country,’ says Amberin Zaman.’ It’s a part of the country where still today unfortunately girls are murdered for such heinous crimes as going to the cinema with a man who’s neither her husband or her relative so it’s very difficult to overcome these cultural and religious barriers.’
Most of the new school enrolments are at co-educational day schools. And a network of buses nationwide now ferry rural children to and from their communities. Local contractors operate in each region at the government’s expense. But many families are not happy with their children going on long bus journeys every day.
Another problem is shortage of teachers. During the fourteen years of conflict between the military and the Kurdish Workers Party in this area, teachers often became victims. Although peace was restored in 1998, the scars remain; experienced teachers are reluctant to come to these remote areas – let alone stay.
Yaprak’s local village teacher, Kenan Akcakola, graduated two years ago.
He explains: ‘Sometimes my teacher friends have to take care of 120 children because most of them don’t want to come because they’re remote mountain villages therefore they have difficulties finding enough teachers.’
Overcrowding is yet another major problem for the Government. Existing and new schools are struggling to cope with the increase in the number of students. At the moment there are about 35,000 schools providing 8 years compulsory education. Only one third of them have got the desired standards, the others have classes of 50 to 60.
Another problem is that under Turkish law the girls are not permitted to cover their heads in schools so people just don’t send their children to school.
‘This headscarf issue is a very controversial issue in fact education is one of the most politicised areas in this country where pro secular establishment is battling overtly pious Turks,’ says Amberin Zaman.
About one million children are still not studying full-time – almost three-quarters of those are girls. Turkey’s education reformers hoped that providing urban schooling would also help integrate children from predominantly Kurdish communities into mainstream Turkish society. Many Kurdish children still haven’t spoken a word of Turkish by the time they reach school. But preserving their cultural identity is a key factor in how the Kurds see the value of national education.
Teachers’ trade unionist Metin Cakir disagrees with government policy on this: ‘We think that it’s not right to integrate Kurds with the Turkish society through boarding schools. The view of our trade union is that the Kurds must have education in their mother tongue and integration should take place in this context.’
There is unemployment in the region, and so some men see educating girls as a waste. Yaprak’s father says: ‘It’s not worth it if the girls are educated and come back to the village. The purpose in our area is that people take education in relation to financial gain – to study and get a job in the end and then they will bring money to parents and the village – that’s the main purpose.’
But even if the girls are not employed and return to the village, there is still a big advantage in educating them. Turan Yilmaz is one of the village’s few university graduates: ‘When we talk to the girls who have returned to the village after completing their education, they are socialised and educated and tell us things that are very useful. They know about family planning, about social interaction – it has a major effect.’
Yaprak agrees: ‘I think it’s still necessary because there’s a difference between those who study and those who don’t, such as knowing how to socialise when they go somewhere – the way they behave is different.’
And Yaprak’s sister, Kiymet, understands this difference from first-hand experience. ‘You see yourself as ignorant and because you don’t have a social circle, you don’t have friends, you start to see the man as superior.’
Dr. Ziya Selcuk, Head of Turkey’s Board of Education, understands this: ‘We prioritise girls’ education not just in terms of its contribution to the economy but in bringing up children, society’s mental state being more agreeable and increasing women’s participation in society life.’
In the last six years, absenteeism among children aged 11-13 has dropped from one in three to one in ten across the country and it’s girls’ enrolments that have improved the most. But with three quarters of a million girls still only attending school on an irregular basis, there are still lessons being learned.
‘I think what the government needs to do is operate at a very grass roots level rather than imposing these grand national strategies from Ankara,’ says Amberin Zaman. ‘I think it needs to get the local governments much more involved, NGOs much more involved. NGOs that would be able to prove to the girls and their families that as a result of education they can improve their lives.’
Professor Mine Tan of Ankara University, who features in the programme, was one of the authors of a report on Towards Gender Equality: Education, Working Life and Politics, published by the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association (TUSIAD).
UNESCO has published a Global Monitoring Report on The Leap to Equality: Gender and Education for all.
Life also produced a programme on Kurdish ‘honour killings’ – In the Name of Honour.