On several occasions last year, World Women’s Day being one of them, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan urged his compatriots to have at least three children for the sake of the Turkish nation’s endurance.
Today Turkey celebrates the opening of Parliament on April 23, 1920, a day marked as National Sovereignty and Children's Day since 1935. But contrary to Erdoğan’s hopes for a vibrant and prosperous youth that would ensure the nation's survival, hundreds of thousands of children in Turkey are already struggling today to reach modern standards of living. The child population, defined as every individual below 18 years of age, stands at 24.7 million or more than a third of the country’s population of 72 million.
Child labor is still widespread despite significant reductions. At least 950,000 children out of 16.2 million between 6 and 17 years of age are working according to figures from the Turkish Statistical Institute, or TÜİK, dated 2006.
Back in 1994 the situation was considerably worse, with 2.27 million children working to earn a living or help a family business in rural or urban settings. That figure dropped to 1.6 million in 1999.
While 502,000 children work in rural areas, the agricultural sector employs 392,000 children, or 41 percent of all juvenile workers. Nearly half of child workers are also deprived of any payments, as 420,000 help their family business. Only 31 percent of working children are attending school at the same time, while 68 percent are deprived of education.
Secondary education in need of improvement
Children’s day is celebrated in the background of hundreds of thousands of Turkish children deprived of education, having to spend their childhood struggling to earn money. School attendance is strong for ages 6 to 13 in primary school, of which eight years has been deemed compulsory since 1997. Approximately 96 percent of that age group has attended a primary education institution in the 2008-2009 educational year. Statistics on the secondary education, however, reveals that the system is somewhat crippled, failing to bring forth the full potential of Turkey’s children. Only 58 percent of children between 13 and 17 are attending a secondary education institution in Turkey.
Another figure that needs urgent attention is the rise of criminal activity among children. Justice Ministry data shows that 1,523 children out of every 100,000 are accused at a court trial, an alarming figure that has rose steadily since 1995, when it was 650. As of March 2009, 80 children were in prison while 1,227 children were under arrest.
A UNICEF report released in December 2008, titled "State of World’s Children," estimated that in 2007, 23 children out of every 1,000 lost his or her life before reaching 5 years of age, ranking Turkey at 104 among 189 countries. Each year, 1.3 million babies are born in Turkey, according to 2007 data. Almost two decades earlier, 82 children out of every 1,000 died before reaching 5. The infant mortality rate now stands at 21.
Another social ill the UNICEF report revealed is young marriages, as 18 percent of women between 20 and 24 married before they are 18.