"What we did was to encourage women to enter into various business"

Posted in Broader Middle East | 23-Jul-06 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

Exclusive WSN/UNDP Roundtable Discussion with Aygen Aytac, Berna Bayazrt Baran and Asli Sahin

Aygen Aytac: "We helped women to establish cooperatives"
Aygen Aytac: "We helped women to establish cooperatives"
Ms. Aygen Aytac, Communications Officer of the UNDP in Turkey:

WSN: Aygen, what can you tell me about the projects you currently have for women?

Aygen Aytac: For women, we actually have a project called "Socio-development of the Gap Region," which is the region known as Southeastern Anatolia.

Within it there are three components: Women, youth and children working in the streets. And, for each of these groups we have certain activities, according to their needs and our aims. For example, for women we offer entrepreneurship courses and we teach them how to make necklaces, do needlework, etc. This project has been carried out in 9 provinces, and in 3 of them we opened bazaars every Saturday, where the women can sell their products, food or handmade jewelry, and other things.

We helped women to establish cooperatives so that they can sell their products in an authorized manner their products where they even provide receipts, and we have another project similar to this one for small entrepreneurships, in southern Anatolia for both men and women. But, we did have some specific courses for women. Some opened small businesses and restaurants after the training, so that was helpful to them.

WSN: What were the problems of these communities? Why did the women not work before UNDP intervened?

Aygen Aytac: You have to keep in mind that these are very poor women with no qualifications, and they could not find jobs. Even the men in their families are unemployed. Plus, we are talking about a very traditional area of Turkey where women do not work outside their homes -- they only work in the farm, with the family. So this was a new concept for them.

We also have a microfinance project that women can benefit from. We do not do anything on the ground, but we are trying to gather information and encourage the state, the parliament and the NGOs to work together

WSN: What is the UNDP's relationship to the state institutions?

Aygen Aytac: We work with state institutions very closely.

WSN: And the necessary funds?

Aygen Aytac: Usually, the UN does not have many funds, but we take government money and also money from the private sector and we use it in the development area. So we are actually directing and channeling their money, and we implement the projects on the ground in cooperation with the NGOs and with the support of the local officials.

Ms. Berna Bayazrt Baran, Program Associate, UNDP:

WSN: Please, tell me about your work here.

Berna Bayazrt Baran: I am in charge of the regional development portfolio, and we are doing our best to include the women component in all of our projects.

In our Eastern Anatolian program, for the entrepreneurship component we focused on women, too, and there have been some successes. But it hasn’t been as broad as the program in Southeastern Anatolia.

Eastern Anatolia is a relatively traditional geographic area. Women there cannot go out very freely, are not very well engaged in economic activities, and there is not much of a civil society movement to support them, which is one of the major problems we have met in this region. We have founded and supported the Entrepreneurship Association of Women, but there are now new initiatives where women come together to do some productive work. What we did was to encourage women to enter into various businesses and basically into production. We have not focused directly on their rights, or other gender issues.

WSN: What about women in urban areas?

Berna Bayazrt Baran: At the urban level, we have concentrated our efforts on institutional development, working with women NGOs and organizing courses. At the rural level, we worked with men and women to provide them with information that can boost the local development, and for women we have done specific trainings on hygiene, family planning, etc.

We have produced a study of the problems we have found in Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia, and made some recommendations based on our findings and ground observations.

Our projects have the support of the governors, foundations and NGOs that work within these communities. So a part of our mission is to improve the skills of these foundations and NGOs that have a solid base in those respective communities. Generally speaking, we help them to modernize their institutional and marketing capacities.

On a people level, we offer support by showing people how they can sustain the quality of their products, how to choose the appropriate products and designs and how to look for places to sell their merchandise, such as at the regional markets, fairs, bazaars, hotels, and shops in major cities like Istanbul and Ankara. Also, we have profitable relations with foreign companies that are interested in Turkish handmade products, Turkish textiles or food.

WSN: What do men in the conservative areas think about UNDP efforts to emancipate women? How do they react to your training?

Berna Bayazrt Baran: It is in fact sometimes difficult, but I think that working with the NGOs from those specific communities has some benefits. They have linkages with those communities, with the people, local institutions, etc.

Although some of the women do have troubles with the men, most are allowed to attend these courses. Usually the community centers where courses are held are in close proximity to their homes, so from there they go straight home. It’s not common for them to walk around freely.

Sometimes, our staff talks directly with their husbands, brothers or fathers, or asks the social services to interfere, but we already have a decent number of women who do attend these workshops.

WSN: Did you have to get in touch with the religious local or regional figures?

Berna Bayazrt Baran: Not for all of the workshops, but occasionally when we provide some gender sensitivity courses to women, we contact the religious leaders.

You cannot change people's mentality in two days of training, and we know that; but there are initiatives going on, and at least some things are now out in the open to be further addressed.

Ms. Asli Sahin, Women in Politics Project Assistant, UNDP:

WSN: What can you tell me about this specific project?

Asli Sahin: We are trying to establish communications with the provincial presidencies of the political parties in two selected provinces, Ankara and Adana. The reason we picked Ankara and Adana is that we took some criteria from the 2002 elections, that is, the cities that we are going to work must have at least 10 members of parliament and at least one has to be a woman. Our immediate aim is to encourage women to enter politics and to deepen democracy in Turkey. With this project, we are not trying to change the electoral law; we are not aiming at changes being made to legislation, although we would welcome it. The project will last 11 months and ends in December.

WSN: Do you have a quota for women to be elected into a party and then into parliament?

Asli Sahin: No, we do not.

WSN: Would it be better for women to enjoy it?

Asli Sahin: Sure. Definitely we have to have it. I mean, all the women working for this project are pro quota. In the last elections, there were some women organizations that pushed for the quota change but it did not happen, unfortunately.

Now, women NGOs are talking again about having a quota if we want more women in parliament, since it will not happen by itself.

WSN: Who is opposing it?

Asli Sahin: It is not easy to change the mentality of men; it’s not easy for men to give up a certain number of seats to women.

We have group meetings, and we tried to bring together all the political party leaders that have representatives in parliament (presently 6 parties that have representatives in parliament), leaders of other parties, the municipalities, the UNDP and women's associations to discuss this important issue together.

To our disappointment, not all the political party leaders came, but they did send envoys. However, many men who are active within the parties came to our meetings, as well as local level officials.

We had a preliminary report that specifies some policy requirements for adapting, and integrating women at a local level. This report was very well received by the UNDP’s partners. At UNDP we will continue to discuss this issue with those in charge, because we cannot change anything without the support of men.

I want to add something here: The women who are pushing for this quota do want a legislative change, and the number that is being discussed is 30%.

Most of the political leaders that accepted our roundtable meetings said that they are pro-quota. If things will move in the right direction, it actually can happen in 2009. We want women to integrate, but the regulations that political parties make place women candidates at the bottom of the list, so there is almost zero chance that they'll get elected.

Also, we asked for a more equitable representation of women at the local level, which sometimes can be more effective for the community than, let’s say, a seat in parliament.

WSN: How many women do you now have in parliament?

Asli Sahin: Only 4.4% of the current parliament is comprised of women, which means 24 out of 550 seats.

According to the UN Millennium Development Goals for Turkey, we are aiming at 17% or 94 seats by 2015. We have asked for women support units within the parties, and we, as well as the women NGOs we are working with, are ready to offer expertise and support to the parties, to implement our demands.

WSN: Does the UNDP cooperate with the EU in this respect?

Asli Sahin: We will be in touch with women from the European Parliament who can act as a role model for women in Turkey. Their experience and expertise in the international political arena will come as an advantage for Turkish women.

WSN: Thank you for your input, Asli.