By Laurel Jarombek
Turkey is serving as this year’s G-20 President, and on Oct. 16 and 17 the country hosted the first-ever Women-20 (W-20) summit. The W-20 engagement group brought together representatives from the world’s major industrialized and developing economies to discuss gender inclusiveness and gender equality as they relate to women’s economic empowerment. While previous G-20 meetings and engagement group summits have addressed gender-related policy, this was the first such assembly dedicated specifically to women’s issues and women’s voices.
The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has directed the planning and execution of Turkey’s G-20 summits. Since inconclusive elections and failed coalition negotiations in June, Turkey has been ruled by an interim government, with the AKP still at the helm. While the AKP has been moving in a more nationalist and Islamist direction in recent months and years, the party’s policies on gender and economics have in the past been pragmatic and mindful of international norms. Emphasizing women’s economic participation through the W-20 summit is consistent with the AKP leadership’s history of complicated and often conflicted positions regarding women’s roles in society, but the likelihood of the values underlined at the summit translating to tangible change is less certain.
Women’s Rights in the AKP Years
In its 13 years of governance, the AKP has made a number of reforms addressing gender issues. Selva Çam, chairwoman of the AKP’s Women’s Branch, highlights the party’s legal measures “to eliminate gender based discrimination,” such as a constitutional amendment holding the state responsible for protecting the equal rights of men and women, as well as the establishment of an Equal Opportunities Commission in the Grand National Assembly. She notes that women’s representation both in politics and in the labor force has increased during the AKP’s tenure. Furthermore, Çam argues, “The fact that W20…was established during Turkey’s presidency is a strong expression of the importance the AK Party government attaches to women.”
Legal reforms and creating space for women’s voices in politics, however, can mask some of the AKP’s more traditional and conservative ideological positions. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for instance, has made public statements asserting that all Turkish women should have at least three children, emphasizing women’s domestic roles. The government ministry that oversees gender issues was also restructured in 2011, its name changing from the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs to the Ministry of Family and Social Policies. The reorganization reflected the party’s view of women primarily in terms of their positions within the traditional family unit. There is a fundamental ambivalence in the AKP’s gender policies, as the party seeks to promote women’s participation in the public sphere while at the same time preserving traditional gender roles.
This tension does not necessarily make the party’s support for women’s economic empowerment disingenuous; the AKP leadership certainly understands the value of women’s participation in the nation’s economy. As Çam defined the government’s general goals for the W-20 and G-20 meetings, “Ensuring women get the status they deserve in the workplace, are active participants in the workforce, and have a voice in production and administration are essential for inclusive growth.” The AKP has drawn significant popular support due in part to the strong economic growth it has managed to sustain for most of its tenure, and increasing women’s participation in the workforce is a proven means of promoting growth.
Derya Kaya of Women for Women’s Human Rights (WWHR), a prominent Istanbul-based feminist organization, suggests that the government’s recognition that women’s economic empowerment would contribute to growth conflicts with other aspects of its ideology. This conflict manifests in policies enforcing the idea that women should continue to bear the burden of childcare if they decide to enter the workforce. Kaya explains, “We need a more comprehensive governmental approach to the issue. It, of course, contradicts if you say ‘I want more women to be employed,’ and then you don’t want men to pick up some household responsibilities.” The lack of adequate childcare services, for instance, points to an incomplete commitment to establishing an “enabling environment” that allows all women to fully participate in the economy.
The W-20 Participants
The flagship organization representing Turkey at the W-20, the Women Entrepreneurs Association of Turkey (KAGİDER), is a prominent NGO that carries out projects within Turkey and through its extensive international partnerships. The president of KAGİDER, Sanem Oktar, says the organization’s “mission is to enable better educational and employment opportunities, to develop entrepreneurship and leadership for women” and that it “is at the vanguard of advocacy for female empowerment.”
The other two civil society groups that attended the summit were the Turkish Businesswomen Association (TİKAD) and the Women and Democracy Association (KADEM). As its name suggests, TİKAD’s primary focus is promoting women’s participation and leadership in business. KADEM covers a broader array of women’s issues than the other two organizations, and it tends to espouse more conservative social positions. Sümeyye Erdoğan, President Erdoğan’s daughter, sits on KADEM’s board, and the organization’s policies typically mirror the AKP government’s approaches to gender issues.
Çam says that once the W-20 civil society leaders were chosen, they were “advised to include as many organizations and representatives involved in women’s issue[s] as possible.” Notably absent from the W-20 discussions, however, were representatives of the category of women’s groups that identifies as feminist and focuses on promoting gender equality. Kaya, who participated in the Civil Society-20 (C-20) summit in September on behalf of WWHR, a member of this feminist network, reports, “W-20 was a whole different process. We had no idea what was going on, it was very last-minute…and many of the women’s organizations we are in touch with, they weren’t even informed.” Only minimal efforts were made to include perspectives from any of Turkey’s hundreds of feminist groups in the W-20 process.
Prospects for Change on the Ground
Beyond the inclusiveness of the summit is the question of its impact on the Turkish government’s approach to women’s issues. Oktar is optimistic about the outcomes of the W-20. On the international level, she contends, “this is a wonderful opportunity to put gender related issues in the forefront and…a huge step in which gender equality is now viewed equally as significant as the other Engagement Groups.” Within Turkey, “The W20 initiative has raised awareness throughout the whole nation.”
Kaya, however, is skeptical about whether the recommendations of the W-20 summit will translate to government action. She compared this situation to the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe initiative addressing violence against women that came into effect in 2014. Over a year later, the Turkish government has not fully addressed the provisions of the convention. Furthermore, Kaya asserts, “we don’t see any intentions from the government side to commit to really fulfill those responsibilities.”
She draws a distinction between what the government is willing to commit to in order to bolster its image internationally and the policies it acts on at home. Kaya argues that in spite of the rhetoric at W-20, the government will continue promoting traditional gender roles. She says, “There is always this PR around government commitments, but when you actually look at what’s happening in the field, you don’t see any change.”
A gap existing between a government’s international commitments and its domestic policies is certainly not a new phenomenon. Ultimately, the AKP is a conservative party with a conservative social platform, and while the party sees the economic value in empowering women and recognizes the need to bear international standards in mind, it has difficulty compromising its traditionalist values.
Elections in Turkey will take place this Sunday, and if the next government is again dominated by the AKP, it is hard to imagine a more comprehensive or groundbreaking approach to gender issues taking shape.
Laurel Jarombek is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Prime Minister of Greece]