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7.6 Participation, civil rights and civic engagement

In Turkey, as in many other countries, boys and girls are frequently ill-prepared for this stage of their lives. The provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child concerning the child’s freedom of opinion, expression, thought, conscience, religion, association, peaceful assembly, and privacy are not well known. There is little tradition of seeking and respecting the views of children including adolescents in matters affecting themselves, whether in the family environment or in institutions and the community. Families are mostly patriarchal and hierarchal, and children are discouraged from an early age from having views and expressing opinions, even on issues directly affecting themselves. Decisions about children’s schooling are taken for them, not with them. Children are rarely even aware that they are being deprived of their right to a hearing, and come to make only material demands on their parents. The situation in the education system is similar. Despite recent changes in the curriculum, it is unclear how far children are rewarded for stating their own opinions. Children are not normally consulted or asked for feedback about lessons or other school activities in which they are obliged to take part. All schools are supposed to have student councils to which children elect their own representatives, but these are not widely perceived as channels for involving children in decision-making (A similar situation exists in universities). Even during the annual April 23 Children’s Day and May 19 Youth and Sports Day celebrations, children and young people mostly play decorative roles which adults have chosen for them.

Legally, too, children may not be regarded as individuals with freedom of choice. A child’s religion is inscribed in his or her identity card immediately after birth. Relevant laws, such as the Civil Code, the Code of Criminal Procedures and the Law on the Practice of Medicine, do not safeguard the right of the child to participate in decisions on important issues concerning himself/herself, in line with his or her cognitive capacity. The Code of Civil Procedures allows a judge the discretion to hear a parent instead of a child up to the age of 16. Children cannot apply to court without parental consent. Relevant laws, such as the Civil Code, the Code of Criminal Procedures and the Law on the Practice of Medicine, do not uphold the child’s right to privacy. In its Concluding Observations of June 2012, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on Turkey to strengthen its efforts to realize the right of the child to be heard, including in the family, in institutions, in legal and administrative proceedings, and in the community. It also recommended awareness-raising and educational programmes on the implementation of this right in order to change traditional perceptions of children as objects rather than subjects of rights.

As adolescence turns to youth, parents may continue to seek to control the professions their children aim at, the friends they bring home and the partners they eventually marry. A survey carried out among 15-24 year-olds by the About Life Foundation (YADA) for the 2008 UNDP National Human Development Report, entitled Youth in Turkey, suggested that only 55 percent were able to participate in decisions about the TV channel to be watched, and only 43 percent had a say on economic matters. The ratios fall significantly for younger age groups and families of lower socio-economic status.

According to the Family Structure Survey carried out by Turkstat and the Directorate General for the Family and Social Research in 2006, Turkish young people experience problems with their parents mostly when it comes to choice of friends (30.5 percent), consumption and expenditure habits (28.1 percent) and style of dressing (26.1 percent). School and job choices (15.9 percent), marriage and family life (14.6 percent) and political opinions (7.2 percent) emerge as problems more rarely. It is unclear whether this means that parents are tolerant towards their sons and daughters on these more serious issues, or whether young people adopt their parents’ views and choices as their own without much questioning.

The frequent suppression of the right to participation during childhood, adolescence and youth may deprive families, institutions and communities of the support of young people and of the benefit of their valuable experiences, sentiments and insights. Moreover, children’s habits of non-participation and non-engagement - of failing to stand up for one’s rights or to take responsibility for self and others – may persist into adulthood, impoverishing the social fabric and political culture, and perpetuating a democratic deficit. Children whose every decision is taken on their behalf cannot grow up into self-esteeming, responsible and active citizens, good at communicating, respectful of the rights of others and capable of taking and implementing decisions collectively for the good of society.

According to Turkstat’s 2010-2011 Life Satisfaction Survey (cited in Turkstat: Youth In Statistics, 2011 pp.124-6), only 22.0% of men and 9.7% of women aged 15-24 declared themselves unequivocally interested in politics. Interest in the economy was put at 26.0% and 16.0% respectively, and interest in environmental issues at 31.0% and 26.0%. Only 5.0% of men and 2.0% of young women had a clear interest in the activities of trades unions or associations. The particularly low level of interest in these issues shown by young women is unsurprising given the low level of engagement of women of all ages in political and social life - a part of the discrimination and gender inequity which characterises society as a whole.

For those adolescents and young people who nevertheless seek to express themselves on wider platforms and/or influence society – for example, due to their family or social backgrounds - opportunities can be limited. Local and national government agencies – including those dealing most directly with children – have not made a habit of consulting with children on an ad hoc or systematic basis or to encouraging their participation. Many municipalities have created children’s and/or youth assemblies, but these are not well known and vary in their functioning. Political parties and NGOs may also be hierarchical and unaccustomed to reaching to and involving young people while bureaucratic procedures make it difficult for them to establish their own organisations. University students collectively engaging in almost any form of political activity, identity expression or self-defence have faced disciplinary measures including expulsion or even prosecution and imprisonment as terrorists.

Under-eighteens were only given the right to form their own associations under a legislative change made in 2004, and the Law on Associations makes children’s membership of associations dependent on parental permission, limits memberships of children to child associations only, and restricts the fields of activity of child associations. In its Concluding Observations of June 2012, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child drew attention to the minimum age of 19 to form an organisational committee for outdoor meetings and the extensive bureaucratic procedures in establishing associations, and advised Turkey to amend legislation and procedures so as to remove remaining obstacles to the full enjoyment of the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

Provincial child rights committees, made up of children themselves, constitute an exception to the overall picture of low child participation. These were established with UNICEF support by the General Directorate for Social Services and the Child Protection Agency (SHÇEK – now under the Ministry for the Family and Social Services). Representing children from all backgrounds, the committees send delegates to regional meetings and an annual National Child Forum. They have helped to implement child rights training and the action plans determined by the Forum, and to run child rights promotion campaigns. Members have briefed teachers, lobbied head teachers and provincial governors and advised UNICEF. They have formed a strong link with the Child Rights Monitoring Committee in Parliament. However, more needs to be done to strengthen their membership and communications, to activate children’s clubs in schools, to mainstream adolescent participation and engagement in all sectors and to change the ways in which adults regard these processes. A national strategy for child participation in Turkey was drafted in 2009 under the leadership of SHÇEK, but there has been little progress since then. All in all, a change of attitude is needed if children are to be brought up as holders of civil rights, and if adolescents and young people are to be enabled to play an influential and constructive role in public life. 

UNICEF Turkey Country Office, Yukarı Dikmen Mah. Alexsander Dubçek Cd. 7/106, 06450 Çankaya/Ankara. Telephone: +90 312 454 1000 Fax: +90 312 496 1461 E-mail: ankara@unicef.org