First the good news: Turkey has improved its human development performance, rising three ranks in the UN Human Development Index since last year, thanks partly to the resilience of its gross national income during the financial turmoil of recent years and the rising life expectancy of its citizens, who can now hope to live an average of 74 years, compared to the previous 72.2.
Then to less impressive results: According to the 2011 edition of the Gender Gap Index published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), also released this week, Turkey ranks 122 out of 135 countries in gender equality. While it marks a slight improvement on last year's performance, when Turkey was 126 out of 134, Turkey remains second to last among upper middle-income countries, with only Iran showing a worse performance in this category. And importantly for a nation that measures itself against European Union members, the gender gap in Turkey is, by a long stretch, the widest in the Europe/Central Asia region.
Scandinavian countries have come closest to gender parity, while the Middle East lags behind other parts of the world. It is too early to tell what impact the Arab Spring, which presents new opportunities and risks for women's empowerment, will have on the gender balance.
The Gender Gap Index does not rank countries according to women’s empowerment, nor does it measure the resources and opportunities available in any given country. Rather, as its title indicates, it charts the male/female ratio in several indices grouped in four categories: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.
The increase in the ratio of women deputies in the Turkish Parliament from 9.1 to 14 percent contributed to an improvement in the political attainment category. Whether the figures translate into real power is open to debate since so few women are involved in local administration, but it is progress nonetheless. It is in the field of economic participation and opportunities, however, that Turkey continues to fail: Low female labor participation places it among the world's worst performers, ranking 132 out of the 135 countries.
The wide gender disparity on the economic front could have a long-term impact on the sustainability of Turkey’s growth. The WEF tracks the male/female ratio in countries around the world because it believes closing the gender gap is not just an issue of human rights and equity, but one of efficiency. Studies have demonstrated a link between better gender balances and a country’s competitiveness. A narrow gap boosts productivity because society can make good use of its human talent. The WEF report suggests for instance that Japan, a highly developed country which only ranks 98th in gender equality, could increase its gross domestic product (GDP) by a hefty 16 percent by closing the male/female gap in employment. Turkey would no doubt have much to gain by adopting policies that allow women to combine work and family better.
Data only tell part of the story, of course. The patriarchal mentality also manifests itself in ways that aren't so easily quantifiable. On paper, for instance, Turkey's legislation is not inimical to women. Yet, egregious examples of an outdated approach that also prevent the gap from closing emerge on a regular basis. The most recent, of course, is the Supreme Court of Appeals’ decision to approve minimum sentences for 26 men who raped a 13 year old. When the court urged people to wait and not rush to condemnation, it missed the point: This case has been making its way up Turkey's judicial ladder since 2002 and at each stage, magistrates have subscribed to the notion that a 13 year old, abused repeatedly over a period of months by much older men, could have consented to her ordeal.
Minister Fatma Şahin, who is working hard to challenge the societal status quo at all levels, was the first official who expressed outrage, followed by two of her male colleagues. But the gender bias in the judiciary is only one aspect of the traditional approach that prevents Turkey from improving its equality credentials. Young people too, incidentally, are short-changed in this male-dominated system.
For all the economic growth and increased prosperity Turkey has achieved in recent years, disparities in the society ─ and not just on the gender front ─ remain wide. The Bertelsmann Foundation recently published a study that showed Turkey lagging far behind fellow Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) members in terms of social justice, measured in terms of poverty prevention, access to education, labor market inclusion, health, social cohesion and non-discrimination, and intergenerational justice. These criteria, it could be argued, point to the health of a democratic society. To sustain its recent success in the future and prevent social tension, Turkey still needs to fine-tune social balances.
(The writer is a columnist for the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman where this article was first published on Nov. 3, 2011.)