Women’s outrage is growing across the country, and not just among secular feminists. Bans and strict limitations merely push abortion underground and lead desperate women with limited financial means to turn to risky procedures that often cost lives.
The prime minister’s sudden opposition to abortion and Cesarean sections appears, in light of subsequent remarks, to be linked to his views on Turkey’s demographic growth. How many C-sections a woman can safely undergo is a matter for medical debate, but most doctors agree that the number is limited. The prime minister on the other hand seems confident that a more populous Turkey would be stronger, more dynamic and more competitive internationally.
Leaving the abortion polemic aside for a moment, the government’s approach is fraught with contradictions. Numerous surveys in recent years have pointed out that while Turkey’s young population is a great asset, the country still fails to make the most of its human capital. Before focusing on unborn babies, the government could start by taking more interest in existing youngsters and investing more in their future.
The remarkable disregard shown for the youngsters killed in Uludere matches a lack of empathy shown in recent years for the fate of youngsters jailed for alleged political offenses and abused in detention. Unnecessary deaths of young soldiers, all too frequent, should also encourage the authorities to work harder for a political solution to the Kurdish issue.
A few days ago, I met Cihan Kırmızıgül, the student at the center of the infamous poşu case. A polite, understated and apolitical young man from a modest family, he worked hard to enter university. Arrested at a bus stop in 2010, wearing the poşu scarf that identified him as a Kurd, he was accused, on the basis of secret witness testimony that was later withdrawn, of involvement in a violent incident that had taken place nearby. He served 25 months in prison and missed two years of school before being sentenced to 11 years and three months’ imprisonment. Currently free pending appeal, he could return to prison unless his conviction is quashed. Yet his is not an isolated case: Some 600 students are currently languishing in jail, accused of taking part in various protests.
Most of these young people had succeeded in entering university in a very competitive environment. Instead of seeing these bright young people as valuable to the future of this country, the authorities view them as threats for expressing dissent.
Turkey’s youth policies, overall, still leave plenty to be desired. In 2008, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) put at nearly 40 percent the number of young people between 15 and 24 who are neither in employment nor education. Youth joblessness has obviously become a global issue, but underuse of young people’s talents has been a chronic problem in this country. Surveys regularly show that educational outcomes remain low by international standards, particularly in terms of the students’ ability to develop critical thinking.
The prime minister’s idyllic depiction of loving mothers surrounded by numerous children may appeal to traditionalists, but it is increasingly at odds with the realities of life in modern, largely urban, Turkey. Demographic growth has declined because families can’t afford to bring up numerous children.
Lifestyle expectations have also changed drastically with the expansion of a new middle class. People rightly aspire to better living standards, which is partly why saving rates have plummeted in recent years as people consume more. The government recently announced plans to overhaul the pension system to encourage people to put more money aside and make the country’s economic development more sustainable.
But it does seem an impossible equation to square: How can you increase the number of dependent children in each family and keep mothers at home to look after them, while at the same time encourage people to fuel economic activity through spending? Women all over the globe were pulled into the workforce because families found that one salary couldn’t meet their needs. Turkey may find out that there is a price to pay for having one of the lowest female workforce participations in the world.
Turkey’s old regime was criticized for its social engineering and attempts to cast all individuals in the same mold. Recent events suggest that this top-down, paternalistic attitude persists: Opposing views are met with intolerance, young people are expected to obey and conservative pressure on women to conform to traditional perceptions is growing. Turkey’s spectacular development of the past decade, however, was the result of a more progressive approach and the promise of more reforms. These days, in the face of growing polarization, one can’t help wondering how long the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) will be able to carry the weight of its own contradictions.