The Turkish government is paying families to "encourage" them to send their daughters to school, as part of its efforts to bring the number of girls in education into line with European standards. More than half of Turkey's young female population has no schooling, according to the United Nations children's fund, UNICEF.
In the Kurdish-dominated east, most are forced to stay at home, unacknowledged by society from the day of their unregistered births. Girls and women account for the vast majority of the 7 million people believed to be illiterate in the predominantly Muslim state. Under Turkey's education minister, Huseyin Celik, this inequity has begun to be addressed.
With the help of UNICEF, some 140,000 girls ages 7 to 13 have been enrolled in school over the past 18 months. The campaign, which started in 10 towns, expanded into 53 of Turkey's 81 provinces last year. "What we have to do is persuade parents about the virtues of education," said Celik, who sees his country's prospective membership of the European Union as a "civilization project." "In those parts of Turkey which are very poor, very medieval, there are officials out there doing this."
Celik recalled trying to persuade a villager from the impoverished southeast to send his daughter to school. "The man declared straight out that 'even if you threaten to kill me, I'd say no.' There were 60 girls in that particular village who were not in school. We sent the mufti [village chief] to tell each of their families why they should go. Now, all 60 are attending classes." Many girls, said the London University-educated politician, are deliberately kept out of the classroom by male relatives who see education as "some form of shame."
Celik does not deny that for him the issue is personal. This son of a railroad worker grew up in Van, a town near the Iranian border, and none of his sisters completed school, although all of his four brothers went on to become "educated men." "Of course, my sisters regret not having a better education; they wish they had finished high school. It is our duty to drag people out of ignorance and into the civilized world. As a government we are determined to stop all forms of discrimination, especially against women. Education for girls is a basic human right."
For the first time, Turkey spent more on education than defense last year, allocating 5.5 billion pounds to the sector. Some of the extra funds went toward "encouraging" parents to send their daughters to school. "It's a form of official bribery," Celik admitted. "To encourage poor people to send girls to school, we give 20 million Turkish lira [6 pounds] a month for those in primary school, and 35 million for each child attending secondary school."
"European values" are at the core of the biggest overhaul of Turkish schooling since the modern republic's creation in 1923. With 20 million pupils and students registered at the primary, secondary and university level, Celik said the aim was not only to bring the system in line with European standards but to "democratize and modernize it."
Turkish textbooks, like the country's national curriculum, are viewed as among the most authoritarian and ideological in the world. Recently, schoolchildren began being "taught" democracy in an effort to promote critical thinking in a system that has long favored learning by rote. "There are 43,000 primary and secondary schools in Turkey, and by the end of 2005 we want to have installed Internet connections in all of them," the minister said.
But progress won't be easy. Although the governing, Islamic-rooted AK Party holds sway among traditionalists, cultural and religious barriers remain great. Most of the country's 12 million ethnic Kurds do not speak Turkish. While there is a grudging acceptance that education can benefit families economically, many fathers resist sending daughters to school because of the country's ban on females covering their heads in state buildings.