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Turkey's female unemployment problem

Cultural factors are cited as key in the worsening problem of female unemployment.

A woman walks past a shop window in Istanbul Sept. 22, 2009. (Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters)

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Leaning against the sink in her kitchen, the midday sun hits Medine Gezer’s face at an angle, aging her beyond her 34 years. The shrieks of her three children drift in from another room, mixing with the smell of cooked rice and cumin.

“My mother, she worked in the field every day. But here in the city, what can I do?” says Gezer, a Kurdish woman living on the second floor of a building in Istanbul’s Tarlabasi neighborhood. The structure, which is home to eight families, is of ramshackle construction but immaculate maintenance. Gesturing to the other room, Gezer asks: “Where would I leave my children if I worked? Here I cook, I keep clean, I know my neighbors. My husband goes out, he works for us.”

In most countries with a similar starting point, the number of employed women has gone up significantly since the 1980s. But in Turkey, the number has spiraled downward from 34.3 percent in 1988 to 21.6 percent in 2008. In 2006 there were fewer women participating in the Turkish economy than in any other country in the OECD, or for that matter in Europe and the Central Asian region.

“Turkey is striving to become a more competitive force, competing with China, Russia, India and Brazil on the global market,” said Diego Angel-Urdinola, a senior economist at the World Bank and team leader of the “Female Labor Participation” report jointly prepared by the World Bank and Turkey's State Planning Organization. “But in the same way that you wouldn’t play football without a full team, countries can’t compete globally if they don’t use the full potential of all their citizens.”

Studies show that increasing the number of women who are actively employed in Turkey would reduce poverty and increase national economic output.

“More and better jobs for women will mean higher incomes and better lives not only for them, but also for their families,” said Ulrich Zachau, World Bank Country Director for Turkey. “If, for example, 6 or 7 percent more of Turkish women start full-time jobs ... this will reduce poverty by around 15 percent.”

Urbanization and declining agricultural employment are seen as one cause of the shrinking female workforce in Turkey. Women like Medine Gezer, who have moved away from the family-based environment of rural agriculture, have a hard time adjusting to the working environments typical of urban labor, which often take them away from their homes and families.

Appalling working conditions, low salaries, long working hours and lack of affordable childcare make the situation for urban working women difficult. The demands of family and community often tip the scales toward staying at home.