Monday, August 9, 2010

Beautiful, Comfortable and Trapped

“I have serious doubts whether these women are really happy.” Although her subjects told her they felt financially secure, the images implicitly criticize what Ms. de Tezanos sees as a patriarchal society that values women’s dependence on men to ensure that security.
This photo series, not from Turkey but Guatemala, poignantly raises the issue of what role can women have in a society dominated by men. Once the children are off at school, can a woman feel fulfilled by her life at home? The photographer clearly argues "no".

Sunday, August 8, 2010


After weeks of number crunching I got away from the office to talk to people about some of the issues I've been researching. I won't call it qualitative research, because I have absolutely no training in that. I suppose what I've been doing is more like journalism, maybe slightly better than cringe-inducing articles starting with "on my way from the airport to the hotel the taxi driver told me...".

Here's one such conversation that exemplifies several others I've had, and is maybe more interesting because for most of it I am the one being interviewed. It started when the manager of a çay restaurant I walk past every day approached me, after I had sat down to eat there for the second time. He spoke in Turkish, and the following tries to preserve the true nature of the conversation, with my broken Turkish translated back to English.

Mehmet, resting his arms on the chair across from me: So, you said you are from America, no?

Me: Yes. I am from America.

Mehmet: Where in America?

Me: Boston

Mehmet, now sitting down across from me: Ahh, lovely. I have a friend in Florida who does architecture, for parks and gardens.

Me: Ah, my girlfriend goes to school to study same thing!

Mehmet, smiling: She was the one who was here last time, right?

Me: Yes, her.

Mehmet: So, I want to go to America. Which is better, America or Turkey?

Me (thinking, he's going to ask me for help to get there, I just met him, and even if he were my best friend there's nothing I could do, I've tried before . . . how can I say I like both countries, each has things I like along different dimensions . . .): Both are good.

Mehmet: Do you like Turkey?

Me: I love to Turkey.

Mehmet: How much does a hotel cost in America?

Me: Hmmm. In cities, two hundred dollars. Outside, maybe, fifty.

Mehmet, eyes widened: Two hundred dollars! America is so expensive! What about you, do you have a house?

Me: No. Rent

Mehmet: Allah Allah. And your parents, do they work?

Me: Of course.

Mehmet: Even your mother?

Me: Yes, of course.

Mehmet: Of course. America is so expensive that even mothers must work. And even then your family does not have a home.

Me: No, no. My father and my mother have home. I don't.

Mehmet: Oh, ok, now I see. Well if your father has a home you have a home!

Me: Well...

Mehmet: It is not like that in America, is it?

Me: No. After 18 years, most people leave home.

Mehmet, eyes wider than ever: No! Here we stay with our family until 25, or until we are married. Even then we don't want to leave. And in America your parents throw you in the street!

Me: Haha, it is not like that. We are going to school. After, we are working. But you? Does your mother work? Wife?

Mehmet, smiling proudly: Of course not.

Me: Why?

Mehmet: You see, we here in Turkey are Muslim, and Islam says women should not work.

Me, getting excited, having done a little research on the issue: No, Koran does not say this. Says women can work. Muhammad's wife was working.

Mehmet: Well, see, in today's world. . . we know from Islam that the place for a woman is at home. And a woman's work is house work, and taking care of the children. She should only work if the family needs money. But you, if you had money, if you were rich some day, would your wife work?

Me: It is not mine. It is hers. I mean . . . not for me. For her. . . (Really wanted to make that point, pretty sure he understood).

Mehmet, nodding: See, women wanting to work, people wanting to hire women, this is a big problem for us. Why do we have unemployment in Turkey? Because when you look at the job postings in the paper, everyone wants to hire women! So men, when they want a job, they can't find one!

Me: Why they want women for jobs, not men?

Mehmet: I don't know! (proudly waving his hand towards the 5 young men employed at his tiny tea and toast restaurant standing idly, showing that he's doing his part).

We're interrupted by the arrival of my Turkish panini and çay. Mehmet wished me bon apetit and leaves me, but not before telling me to come back next week when he'll have a book waiting for me about Islam. Inside the kitchen I hear him relating the fascinating details of American life, where everything is so expensive that even the mothers of the college educated have to work.

This conversations and others have definitely made me think. One thing that eventually crosses the mind of every American doing development work abroad is something like "yeah there are problems here, and a growing economy seems to be helping some of the problems, but I don't want this place to turn into America. Sure there's a lot to like in America, but maybe European countries strike a better balance between work and life (even if those long vacations and early pensions are causing fiscal problems now), maybe that is a better model", we think. The central tension we struggle with is between tradition and progress away from poverty, not knowing how to find balance. Fortunately, it is not for us to decide, though to put our work in context we must have a vision of what the good life looks like, what we are working towards, what "development" really means.

In countries where women generally do not work then, is this a luxury or a sign of backwardness? Is this a tradition that ignorant foreigners should leave their hands off of, or is this preventing Turkey from prospering?

I was lucky to have parents who worked at schools, so I got to spend a lot of time with them over the summers. And I had some friends whose mothers did not work outside of home. So I can appreciate how nice it can be for children to have their moms waiting for them when they get home from school, to constantly have that influence and comfort in your life.

I guess the difference between backwardness and luxury to me, with all the biases of my upbringing in America, comes down to personal choice. If a woman wants to work outside of the home, can she? If she and her husband are wealthy enough that they do not both have to work, and she decides to spend more time with their children, then that is a wonderful luxury (which is somehow generally affordable in Turkey but not in America).

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Lack of progress on women's rights in Turkey?

Today the Turkish Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women will present its sixth report, which will summarize its progress over the past five years towards achieving, well, their name. The meeting will be at the UN in New York, which makes me suspect they will emphasize the few gains (such as possible increases in girls' school enrollment).

In advance of that meeting, a coalition of 20 women's organizations has released their own report, stating little to no progress has been made in the past 5 years. The main points:
  • Conservative gender roles continue, and statements by top officials have only supported them. Prime Minister Erdogan has lately taken to telling every married young woman he meets "have at least three babies!" to prevent the Turkish work force from shrinking. Child rearing is apparently the highest aspiration Turkey's leader has for its young women.

  • Not only is female labor force participation low, but it has been declining since 2005. The report notes that the Turkish employment agency İş-Kur has done nothing to promote female employment despite stated goals of increasing female labor force participation (FLFP) to almost 30% by 2013. This is an issue I have been doing background research on, and hopefully a future priority for TEPAV, which can play a special role thanks to its strong connections with Turkish industry leaders. TEPAV was founded by TOBB, the Turkish chamber of commerce, and is just launching a large, high profile project with İş-Kur to retrain unemployed people in strategic sectors. So to grow more engaged in this, to actually create change, the next step for TEPAV would be to work with the relevant agencies, chambers and NGOs to design, implement, and evaluate programs to increase FLFP.

  • Domestic violence is widespread. A survey from last year shows 39% of women are "affected by domestic violence," which I assume means directly and indirectly, though I can't find the original report. It is clear that the government response has been inadequate; rhetoric and legislation without action. A 2005 law required every municipality with a population of 50,000 (164 by my count) to establish a women's shelter, to date only 52 have. The problem - no funding - this was simply an unfunded mandate, designed to make the government look good while doing nothing. A further consequence is that 42% of women were unaware that the law protected them from domestic violence.

  • Social services - family planning only targets women, women must have consent from their husband to have an abortion, and women are somewhat dependent on husbands or fathers to receive free health care.

  • There are too few women in the media - aside from the attractive women on screen, it's mostly a men's club.
So what can be done? Personally, I'm less interested in advocacy, though of course I see the role for it. The symptoms and perhaps some of the causes are pretty clear, and Turkish society is aware of them. I'm more interested in actively discovering solutions to some of these problems, especially female employment, with the perhaps naive view that this has the potential to empower and combat traditional discriminatory gender roles. So the next step for TEPAV will be, as I mentioned above, to work with the right partners to begin the learning cycle of design, implement, evaluate...

A final point - it seems mainly "women's organizations" are working on women's rights issues in Turkey, which I would guess is the norm around the world. The problem in Turkey is that it is too easy for men to dismiss these organizations as pastimes for the wives of rich men or outlets for angry feminists, even when they are doing good research, advocacy or service provision. In a policy environment where men hold most of the power, what can be the catalyst for change? I argue that on issues such as female employment, it will take an organization such as TEPAV, which powerful men cannot dismiss so easily.

Can't argue with his logic

"Where does alcohol come from? Don't they produce these drinks from fruits? Eat fruits instead of drinking then!"

-Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, accepting an award from the WHO on a remarkably successful indoor smoking ban (which has had the wonderful consequence of even more outdoor seating at restaurants). I suspect his campaign to reduce alcohol consumption will not succeed through rational persuasion alone, but the extremely high taxes his party have imposed, along with reduction in liquor and bar licenses perhaps will: a bottle of raki that cost 9 lira 8 years ago now costs 35 lira!

Erdogan chose the WHO platform to make these remarks, but is this a health issue? Perhaps, but there are certainly larger health concerns in Turkey: Turks consume 1.4 liters of alcohol per year, compared to 9.o in neighboring Greece, and 4.4 in indulging Qatar. Car accidents are a larger problem: almost 500,000 per year, with 4,500 fatalities, but it is not clear how many were due to drunk driving, versus everyday erratic driving.

Monday, July 19, 2010

What am I actually doing?

So far TEPAV has been an exciting place to work, and I've met dozens of bright, enthusiastic people working on interesting projects, who are always looking for new chances to inform policy through research or direct consultation. I've been involving myself in their efforts to expand their influence in social policy, especially in health, education, and women's policy. So far I've been collaborating with Esen, Asli, Sarp, Emin, Sibel and Selin.


TEPAV had never done any work in the health sector before, so we started with a background note describing Turkey's health system, recent reform efforts, and their impact. Turkey has been succesful in expanding health insurance coverage, to 95% of it's population according to some sources, which inspired the headline "Obama imitated Turkey in health reform." It seems that while Turkey has been increasing financial risk protection simply by spending more money (including tripling the salaries of health workers) - they neglected the politically difficult step of establishing cost-control mechanisms, so maybe Obama copied Turkey more than the journalist realized.

But Turkey's challenges are perhaps greater than in the US, as Turkey suffers from a double disease burden - infectious diseases faced by many poorer countries, and rising rates of obesity and diabetes as in richer countries. As one colleague bluntly put it - "Turkey is part Europe, part Africa." This is not entirely an exaggeration - under-five-mortality among the children least educated mothers in Turkey is comparable to that of Algeria, Namibia and South Africa (World Health Organization).


TEPAV has somewhat more experience in education, because of education's role in developing workers for the economy, which is closer to TEPAV's founding interests. Similar to the health sector, we are starting with a background on Turkey's complex education system, the subject of constant tinkering without any deep reform. One encouraging sign here is that female enrollment in primary, secondary, and tertiary education has been increasing in the past decade, though we're still learning how trustworthy the data is. The education ministry brags about increases in female enrollment, but it seems much of the increase has been due to revisions in the census methodology. More on that later.

Within both health and education, I am helping TEPAV grow by planning impact evaluations of specific policies and pilot programs. Specifically, I am interested in using randomized evaluations, which I have several years experience in while working with my previous employer, the Jameel Poverty Action Lab, but integrating this methodology in an approach that HKS professor Lant Pritchett calls evaluation with a "little e". Essentially, policy-makers must admit relative ignorance in what policy will work, design several variants of a program, and using monitoring data, see which seem to be the most cost effective. The most effective program could be a candidate for scaling up, but the learning does not stop there. The goal is not to identify a permanent solution to increasing girls enrollment, but to use "little e" as a good problem solving system, as Bill Easterly recently wrote about.

Women's (labor force) policy

While we're not ignoring how education and health policies affect women and girls, I've been working on another topic with a pure focus on women's policy - female labor - the subject of an earlier blog post. This research has shown that while female labor force participation is very low in Turkey, it is significantly higher than what would be expected given Turkey's level of economic development, the percentage of Muslims in Turkey (and a few other controls). Now I am reviewing the policy options available to Turkey to increase opportunities for women who want to work, for example: removing the headscarf ban in public buildings (including universities and civil service), increasing preschool subsidization and provision (so mothers who want to work can), subsidizing child care, and policies such as conditional cash transfers to increase girls' school enrollment.

The headscarf ban is of course a very complex, politically charged issue, which I'm still learning about after more than 10 years of visiting Turkey. At first I thought it was merely an Orientalist obsession, just a symbol of what separates West and East. While the symbolic value is there, it is a hotly debated issue internally in Turkey, which I'll write more about later. However, TEPAV does not want to inject itself into the complex political and cultural aspects of the debate. If possible, TEPAV wants to conduct neutral research to inform the arguments, especially relating to the effect on the economy, and female education, labor, and general participation in society.

But is there any neutral territory? Will those who dislike our research findings label us disingenuous, concealing ulterior motives? We'll see!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"The Kurdish problem"

Some argue the Kurdish problem is really a regional problem - many Kurds are fully integrated into Turkish society, with possibly a million Turkish-Kurdish weddings, Kurdish TV stations, and now a Kurdish head of the CHP. With Kurds increasingly participating in broader Turkish society, why does the PKK continue to grow? This is an interesting angle I have not heard before::
Another important finding of the report was the higher number of women who are recruited by the PKK. The major reason behind this was the overall negative attitude dominant in the region towards girls and women. The PKK, which claims that it values women and sees them as equals, can readily attract female participants.

An unnamed expert from the region is quoted in the report as saying: “It is very difficult to be a female child in this area. The society’s view of girls is very clear. Only boys are counted; to them, the girls aren’t there. They send them to school because they have to. They are never happy when they have a baby girl. They don’t have any place in the family; they are forced into marriage. They have to live in poverty because of the dowry paid by the groom. The groom spends all his money on the dowry. They are denied their right to inheritance. What can a girl do in this desperation?” The study found that girls join the organization [PKK] to escape these problems.
While I should be wary of "unnamed experts," it is an interesting theory about the regional strength of the movement. Full article here.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Being a woman in Şırnak"

“In this region, if one has 250 Liras or a color television to sell to the old men, it is difficult to be not only a woman but a human being in general.”

From a letter sent to the Turkish Federation of Women’s Associations, referring to the practice of selling women. There are shocking reminders like this in the Turkish press several times a week that Atatürk's vision of equality for women is far from realized.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Avrupalılaştıramadıklarımızdan mısınız?

The title is one of the longest words in Turkish, meaning: Are you one of those whom we could not Europeanize? [Insert joke about never-ending EU ascension process here].

Amid widespread claims that the West has "lost Turkey" (who knew we owned it?), a report published this morning made we wonder - are Turkish attitudes towards gender equality more European, or more similar to Turkey's Muslim neighbors to the east? The Pew Global Attitudes Project released a report on a survey of gender equality attitudes in 22 countries, with some surprising results, some less so.

In Turkey, 95% of respondents said women should be able to work outside the house (while only one-quarter of Turkish women actually do), but 67% said when jobs are scarce, men should have more of a right to jobs. So in the first question Turkey is on pace with its EU neighbors, but in the second question closer to the six other predominantly Muslim countries.

When asked if "women should have the right to decide if they wear a veil," 96% of Turks said yes! (see graph). What the survey does not get into is why people say yes. For a lot of Turks, perhaps this is a strong statement against the ban on headscarves in public spaces (including public and private universities, courts, and government buildings), which has been imposed on the public since Atatürk, and recently maintained by the secular constitutional court.

But the way the question is phrased, staunch secularists might agree as well. For them, perhaps they are imagining a protective father or husband forcing a woman to wear a headscarf. For these people, it is also, at least partially, an issue of women's freedom, but freedom from a woman's oppressive father or husband, not from the oppressive state.

Regardless, there is a large divide between Muslims in countries like Turkey, Indonesia, Lebanon (Muslim population is about 60%), and Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan and Nigeria. Interestingly, Pakistan is between the two extremes because 83% of women think it is their right, while only 47% of men do, the largest gender gap.

Another question in which Turkey stood out - do men have a better life than women? Without dividing the results between genders, Turkey was middle of the road. But Turkey had the biggest gender gap - only 19% of men said men have a better life (most men said both do), but 46% of women said men do (with most of the rest saying both, few saying women do).

So why does Turkey have the largest difference in perceptions between men and women?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

But what do the data say? Female labor force participation...

In my last post I asserted that female labor force participation (FLFP) in Turkey was low given their level of economic development and that most Turks are Muslim. But what do the data say?

The graph below (click it to enlarge) shows income per person on the horizontal axis (log scale, PPP), while the vertical axis shows FLFP (women working at home are not counted as participating). The curve shown is the predicted level of FLFP - high in very poor countries, lower in middle income countries, and slightly higher in rich countries.

Turkey is the red dot, below the curve, meaning fewer women work than expected - so something other than the income level explains their low FLFP. Note that the dot size corresponds to population (China and India were omitted because their enormous populations allowed them to bully the results).

Graph 1: Female labor force participation vs. income per capita

The next graph shows the difference between the actual and predicted values - it simply takes the data from the previous graph and displays the vertical distance between each point and the curve. Imagine taking the above graph, bending the curve until it is straight, then placing it on the horizontal axis. Points right on the horizontal axis were predicted perfectly - so clearly there are large prediction errors for many countries - the income level does not explain everything!

Graph 2: Difference in actual and expected FLFP vs. income

A casual look at the above graph shows that many of the countries that have lower FLFP than predicted are predominantly Muslim. The graph below controls for the percentage of Muslims in each country, and yields much better predictions. The religion data is from worldmapper, which was the most comprehensive source I could find, but I don't know its accuracy. Note that once % Muslims is controlled for, Turkey actually has a higher FLFP than predicted (it is above the x-axis).

Graph 3: Difference in actual and expected FLFP vs. income, controlling for Muslim population

Finally, the graph below controls for percentage of Sunnis and Shias in each country, instead of lumping them together as Muslims. I also controlled for Catholics, Protestants, rural population, male labor force participation, and the age distribution. Now the model fits the data quite closely (R2=0.69).

Graph 4: Difference in actual and expected FLFP vs. income, controlling for Sunni and Shia population

So in the final analysis, Turkey actually has a greater female labor force participation rate than expected! Their level is 7.4 percentage points higher than the model predicted (25.1% vs. predicted 17.7%). Is this the Atatürk effect?

This means my prior suspicions were wrong!

But why did I come all the way to Turkey to crunch a bunch of numbers that I could access from the US? I did not - this background analysis is merely a starting point to understand this issue in Turkey's economic and cultural context. More to come.

Now the questions are - why is Turkey's FLFP higher than expected? But more importantly - what can Turkish policy makers and employers do to increase female labor force participation? Better education and vocational training? More creative use of existing talent? And, what do the women say? Do they want to work? Time for some qualitative analysis?

Friday, May 28, 2010

Thinking (and doing?) in Turkey

Next week I'm off to Ankara, Turkey, to work for two and a half months at TEPAV, Turkey's leading economic policy think tank. While TEPAV is known more for their macroeconomic, governance, and foreign policy research, I'll be working with a small team to help them become more engaged in the social policy (education, health, labor, migration, gender) debates. One area of particular interest is female labor force participation, which is surprisingly low in Turkey (26.9%), even after considering their level of development and that the predominant religion is Islam.

In their words, "TEPAV intends to increase the knowledge content of policy discussions in Turkey. The goal of TEPAV research is to remove the gap between academic research and policy implementation." TEPAV seeks to grow their influence in social policy at a time when implementing authority is being decentralized to the local level. This process will hopefully create opportunities for TEPAV to work with local governments to design, monitor, redesign, evaluate, and share successful (and disastrous) policies.

I would like to thank
Nancy Germeshausen Klavans Cultural Bridge Fellowship and the Harvard Kennedy School's WAPP for making my work with TEPAV possible.

I'll have more to say when I'm there, for now, enjoy a few scenes (and future themes?) from previous trips to Turkey.