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Push for maternity leave in Turkey may backfire

By Jennifer Hattam   |   Feb. 26, 2013 at 5:50 PM   |   Comments

ISTANBUL {WOMENSENEWS}-- A government proposal to lengthen the duration of paid maternity leave from four months to six months is generating apprehension rather than applause from women in Turkey.

"It is a positive development in principle, but may become an obstacle for women to return to work," Gulden Turktan, the Istanbul-based president of the Women Entrepreneurs Association of Turkey (KAGIDER), told Women's eNews.

Women already start facing barriers in working life once they get pregnant, added Nur Ger, the founder and CEO of the Istanbul-based SUTEKS Textiles and the chair of the Turkish Industry and Business Association's gender equality working group.

"There is a tendency among employers to avoid hiring pregnant women since they will need to take their [maternity] leave soon," she said.

The maternity leave discussion currently underway in the Turkish cabinet comes amid increasing pressure on Turkish women to have more children. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been calling since 2008 for women to have "at least three" children to revitalize the country's slowing population growth.

Turkey's fertility rate dropped to 2.02 in 2011, just below the replacement level of 2.1. Meanwhile, the median age of the country's population inched above 30 last year for the first time.

This year, Erdogan has upped the ante, saying in January that "we need four to five [children per family] to carry the country forward," assigning four government ministers to work on population policy and floating proposals for family-expanding incentives, such as free fertility treatments for low-income couples.

A Larger Goal

As with his outrage last year about abortions and Caesarean sections, which he characterized as "secret plots" to hinder the country's growth, Erdogan has framed his push for a bigger, younger population as part of a larger goal: To make Turkey one of the world's top 10 economies by 2023, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic. (It currently ranks 17th.)

That goal, though, would be better served by increasing women's participation in the paid work force, KAGIDER's Turktan told Women's eNews.

"It is very basic arithmetic: If you leave half of the resources untapped, your growth potential remains limited," she said. "Currently, the female employment rate is 26 percent, [meaning that] of around 26 million women of working age, only 6.9 million are employed. This is a huge wasted potential."

Though the number of working women is slowly growing, Ger noted that the government's aim for 2023 is only to have 35 percent female participation in the work force. "When compared to the current status, this does not seem like a very challenging target," she said.

The quality of the country's labor force is as important as its quantity, added economist Gokce Uysal, the vice director of the Bahcesehir University Center for Economic and Social Research.

"Monetary incentives to increase fertility rates work predominantly on the poorer segments of the population, who may not have the means to invest properly in the 'human capital' of their children," Uysal told Women's eNews.

She is calling for comprehensive education reform. The average person in Turkey gets just 6.5 years of schooling, and only half as many women as men attain a secondary or higher level of education, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

Child Care Subsidy Push

The lack of subsidized child care is another major barrier to Turkish women's full participation in the work force.

"If the prime minister wants each Turkish family to have at least three children, then the government must create a sustainable, state-funded child care system. Otherwise this will not work," Turktan said. "A working mother with three children can only be a reality with child-care help."

A monthly child-care subsidy to working women would "pay back twice as much," according to research conducted by KAGIDER and PricewaterhouseCoopers, in increased employment and the expansion and formalization of Turkey's child-care sector, she said.

Under a current law that is also up for amendment, companies are responsible for providing child care if they employ more than 150 women.

"This acts as a disincentive for firms as it increases the relative cost of female workers," Uysal said. "Maternity leave has a similar effect. We should have paternity leave for fathers as well, which should not be transferable."

Shared parental leave is becoming increasingly common in Europe, where Sweden and Germany both mandate that at least two months of their generous paid leave be taken by fathers. Workers' unions and women's organizations in Turkey – including the women's branch of Erdogan's own ruling political party – have lobbied for similar measures since at least 2009, but without success.

Adopting a system of parental leave rather than maternity leave would "work toward equalizing the costs of female and male workers. Moreover, it would help tilt the household division of labor away from a traditional gender-based one," Uysal told Women's eNews.

Women in Turkey spend four more hours per day than men engaged in household and caregiving activities, compared to a difference of just over an hour in the Nordic countries, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's Better Life Index.

"A traditional gender-based division of labor at home is one of the strongest barriers against female labor force participation," Uysal said. "We need to acknowledge this and start fighting it."

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