Turkey’s Population Policy: A Proxy War against Working Women?

2015-04-09    |   

Turkey’s Population Policy: A Proxy War against Working Women?

Up until 2008, Turkey’s domestic policies had been largely confined to implementing reforms that concur with its desire to join the European Union (EU). Following 2008, and after its progress towards joining the European club had encountered some setbacks, Turkey gained some freedom to act as it pleased on the domestic level. It’s GDP growth rate steadily increased, reaching a peak of 8.8% in 2011.[1] The vitality of the Turkish people, a large proportion of whom are young and capable of working and producing, has, over the last ten years, played a major part in the improvement of Turkey’s economic situation. This, in turn, led to social changes including a large decline in the birth rate. The successive waves of migration from rural to urban areas for work played a key part in this decline.

The Turkish Statistical Institute (TurkStat) has been influential in warning the Turkish authorities of the danger posed by the country’s declining birth rate. Since at least 2008, it has been publishing unsettling statistics and studies on Turkey’s demographic situation, and debriefing the authorities on their projected estimates for the coming years in this regard. For example, in 2013, TurkStat published a detailed report demonstrating that by 2049 the population size will have begun to decline, because of the increasing portion aged over 65 years and the increasing average age. The above-65 cohort will increase from 7.5% of the total population in 2012 to 10.2% in 2023, whereas the average age will increase from 30.1 years in 2012 to 34 years by 2023, and 42.9 years by 2050. The report also indicated that the fertility rate, which was 4.33 in 1976, had fallen to 2 by 2012, and will drop to just 1.6 by 2050. The report added that Turkey, with its population at the beginning of 2013 numbering around 77 million, is currently the 18th most populated country, but it will fall to the 20th position by 2050 if no measures or policies are adopted to alter the situation.[2] This relative drop will entail a decline in Turkey’s economic power, and its political standing among its peer countries.

These numbers, which seem unsettling for a state that strives to be an active and influential economic power in its region, have in the last few years prompted Turkish authorities to employ a series of measures and campaigns to motivate Turks to reproduce, and counteract the aging population problem. While several well-thought-out methods have been employed to stop Turkey’s demographic bleed, most of these measures have been directed at Turkish women.

Moral Incentives to Bear “at least three children”

Although Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, former president of the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) and current president of Turkey, made demographics his priority as early as 2008 and has been reminding women of the necessity of reproduction at every public event he attends,[3] it was not until the beginning of 2013 that his party’s demographic policy became clear. At the International Summit on Family and Social Policy, convened in Ankara on January 2nd and 3rd, 2013, Erdoğan clearly stated the number of children he wants every family to bear: “One or two children mean bankruptcy. Three children mean we are not improving but not receding either. So, I repeat, at least three children are necessary in each family”.[4]

Just as Erdoğan and his party colleagues have made frequent public appeals encouraging Turks to reproduce, successive governments have also tried to morally motivate the population using a series of targeted publicity campaigns. These campaigns have consisted primarily of documentary films about “the ideal Turkish family” and of ads on the roadsides, in the official media, and in media outlets close to the AKP. The party also frequently organized conferences, seminars, and lectures in the country’s various regions to motivate Turks to reproduce and continually increase their numbers.

On the practical level, in February 2013, Turkey established two commissions, one parliamentary and the other consisting of the relevant ministries. The ministerial commission, overseen by Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, includes the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Family and Social Policies. The task of the two commissions was securing the financial prerequisites of an integrated project to increase the population size, on the one hand, and formulating the social, legal, and ethical justifications for this project, on the other.[5] Although the commissions have not yet announced such an integrated project, a series of successive laws and decrees have been issued to confront the aging population problem, and to motivate women to bear children.

Financial Incentives and Conservative Policies on Women

Financial incentives first targeted mothers who give birth. The Ministry of Labour and Social Security issued a decree improving their occupational circumstances, by extending maternity leave from 16 to 24 weeks.[6] Although women's groups and some labour unions welcomed this decree, it was criticized for fear that private sector business owners would exploit the “long” leave period and replace the female employees. The aforementioned ministry also proposed another decree that would improve retirement conditions for women, by adding two years to a worker’s effective length of service for every child she bore, including those born before she started working.[7] However, this would necessitate amending certain articles in the Labour Act of Turkey (Law No. 4857), a matter still pending in the drawers of Parliament.

The two aforementioned decrees generally improve women’s working conditions, and the discourse of working women’s rights has been used to justify their introduction. They, however, are part of the government’s demographic policy, and ultimately aim to encourage women to bear children, not work. They also encourage business owners to dispense with female employees in order to maintain profits.

The Turkish authorities have also taken action in another area relating directly to women: abortion. Since 1983, abortion within ten weeks of conception has been permissible, when a law legalizing it was “granted” to women to reduce the number of deaths relating to pregnancy. However, the AKP, which has conservative Islamist roots, believes that “abortion is murder”, as articulated by Erdoğan himself.[8] As abortion is one of the many factors limiting population growth in Turkey, a special law was proposed in Parliament that restricts and criminalizes the procedure, and punishes those who ‘perpetrate’ it.

This law, proposed on February 2013,[9] stipulates that abortions be conducted in hospitals only and by consenting obstetricians. This means that no abortions could be performed by certified practitioners, or at local health clinics distributed around Turkey,[10]  as was the case previously. Since hospitals are not sufficiently spread across the country, especially in remote regions, the law would make access to abortion services more difficult.

Parliament has not yet approved the law in the wake of extensive demonstrations against it, which women’s movements and secular parties in Turkey organized in February and March 2013. According to Pinar Ilkkaracan, co-founder of Women for Women's Human Rights, who was speaking at the time of the 2013 demonstrations, “all of Turkey's clinics or hospitals which feel politically close to the government or prime minister are refusing abortions”.[11] However, efforts to stop this law from passing has not prevented the ruling party from working to make abortion more difficult to access. An administrative circular was issued to state hospitals and hospitals that share the government’s political and religious orientations. This circular instructed these hospitals to subject the processes relating to abortion to certain requirements, such as appointment delays.[12] As such, the ruling party has partially achieved the proposed law’s desired outcome without it having actually been adopted.

The ruling party has also worked on a series of incentives for women to impel them to bear children. Such incentives include tax exemptions for women who work from home. The party also sought to increase payments to women caring for the elderly at home, an endeavour that Hulya Gulbahar, one of Turkey’s leading women’s rights activists, described as an effort “to keep women at home”.[13] Furthermore, the Ministry of Family and Social Policies announced that fertility treatment would be made available at the state’s expense to 2,500 families.[14] At the same time, Erdoğan did not spare women who use contraception from his criticisms, deeming birth control as an act of treason and repeating his goal at every opportunity: “One (child) means loneliness, two means rivalry, three means balance and four means abundance. And God takes care of the rest.”[15]

Davutoglu’s “Reform” Plan and the Declining Participation Rate of Women in the Workforce

At the beginning of 2015, policies aimed at increasing the population size became more explicit and more direct, and encompassed larger portions of society. The current government, headed by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, issued what it labelled a “reform plan” to confront declining birth rates. This plan is based primarily on financial and occupational incentives for women to motivate them to bear children.

The plan includes several ministerial decrees, the most important of which awards women gold for bearing children. First-time mothers receive TRY300 [US$120] worth of gold in the form of half a coin, second-time mothers receive TRY400 [US$160] worth of gold, and third-time mothers receive a complete gold coin worth TRY600 [US$240].[16] The plan also includes a financial reward of TRY10,000 [US$4,000] for every couple that marries early, and forgives the education debts of university students who marry during their studies. Within the first week of its introduction, the latter incentive prompted around 3,000 students to marry.[17]

Similarly, Davutoğlu announced that female workers will, for an entire year after giving birth, be allowed to take home their full monthly salaries while working just four hours a day.[18] Although this offering may ostensibly benefit women, it will inevitably oust them from their jobs and lead to a drop in the level of women’s employment. The great discrepancy between the productivity of childbearing women and the full salaries they require, will place enormous financial burdens on businesses, prompting their owners to avoid employing women.

Concurrent with these policies which began in 2008, the labour participation rate of women in Turkey has declined. While women participated at a rate of 40% of the total women poplation in 2000, the participation of women constituted no more than 27% in 2012,[19] although it returned to and stabilized at 29% in 2013 and 2014.[20] This sharp decline stems largely from the policies adopted by successive Turkish governments that have made it more lucrative for women to stay home, and benefit from the various government incentives to care for the family and bear children at the expense of work. Additionally, Zahidul Huque, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) representative for Turkey, acknowledges that the absence of childcare centres and the government policies that are making Turkish society more conservative play a part.[21]


All of the policies relating to women that the Turkish government has adopted, aim to increase the size of the population and raise the fertility rate of families, even if they have relied on decrees and measures that ostensibly support women, their role in society, and their labour rights. Similarly, the ruling party is propagating its demographic policy using various tools, such as material, occupational, and medical incentives, on the one hand, and targeted publicity campaigns and political speeches encouraging reproduction, on the other.

Furthermore, AKP's policies appear smart, slow, and deliberate. Instead of relying on one integrated policy aimed at achieving the goal in one push, the party has adopted measures in successive pushes spanning from 2008 to today. This may be because the government fears strong criticism from international organizations and the EU. It may also fear opposition from civil society, including feminist and rights-based organizations that remain strong and influential in Turkey.

The ruling party’s policies appear to be unstoppable for the foreseeable future, be that because of its popular power and the weakness of its adversaries, or because of its freedom to administer its internal affairs and its enormous financial and economic capabilities. Day by day, Turkish society is gradually becoming more conservative, while the role of women in the labour market is declining. On the other hand, the “three or more children” project appears to be long-term and under constant development and adaptation. It aims to instigate fundamental social and demographic changes, the consequences of which will appear in the mid-term future, when the population has grown by a few million more people. These additional millions, consisting primarily of energetic young manpower, will be another factor that helps Turkey gain more regional economic power and political influence.


[1] The World Bank, “GDP growth (annual %)”, the World Bank national accounts data and OECD National Accounts data files, 2014; accessed March 14, 2015.

[2] See: Uçar Barış’, “Population Projections, 2013-2075”, Turkish Statistical Institute, February 14, 2013; accessed March 14, 2015.

[3] See: Eyüp Can’s, “Turquie : Faire plus d’enfants nous éloigne de l’Europe”, Courrier International, May 22, 2008; checked on March 14, 2015.

[4] Hürriyet Daily News, “Turkish PM Erdoğan reiterates his call for three children”, January 3, 2013; accessed March 14, 2015.

[5] Hürriyet Daily News, “Turkish PM pushes for ‘three children incentive’”, February 10, 2013; accessed March 14, 2015.

[6] See: Riada Ašimović Akyol’s, “Erdogan’s Family Policy Conservative, But Not Islamist”, Al-Monitor, September 27, 2013; accessed March 14, 2015.

[7] See: Adnan Sarı Kabak’s, “Turkey’s new population policy”, Turkish Review, June 1, 2013; accessed March 15, 2015.

[8] Hürriyet Daily News, “Abortion is 'murder,' says Turkey's PM”, May 26, 2012; accessed March 14, 2015.

[9] The AKP first attempted to introduce a law banning abortion in 2004, but pressure from the European Union led the government to abandon the bill in the same year.

[10] See: Letsch Constanze’s, “Turkish law will make legal abortion impossible, say campaigners”, The Guardian, February 1, 2013; accessed March 15, 2015.

[11] See: Dorian Jones’, “Turkish Women's Groups Gird for Abortion Rights Battle”, Voice of America, February 14, 2013; accessed March 15, 2015.
[12] Hürriyet Daily News, “Abortion banned in Turkish state hospitals, health group claims”, March 13, 2014; accessed March 15, 2015.  

[13] See: Barçın Yinanç’s, “AKP seeking to create own women’s movement: Lawyer”, Hürriyet Daily News, March 4, 2013; accessed March 15, 2015.

[14] See: Jonathon Burch’s, “Turkey readies incentives to halt falling birth rate”, Reuters, January 31, 2013; accessed March 15, 2015.

[15] See: Adam Taylor’s, “Birth control as ‘treason?’ The logic behind the Turkish president’s latest controversy”, The Washington Post, December 24, 2014; accessed March 15, 2015.

[16] See: Zülfikar Doğan’s, “Turkey offers cash rewards for marrying early”, Al-Monitor, February 9, 2015; accessed March 15, 2015.

[17] See: Elsa Buchanan’s, “Turkey: PM pledges dowry of gold to young women to have children”, International Business Times, February 10, 2015; accessed March 15, 2015.

[18] See note 16 above, idem.

[19] See: Erkus Sevil’s, “Fewer women employed in Turkey: UN official”, Hürriyet Daily News, March 8, 2013; accessed March 15, 2015.

[20] The World Bank, “Labor force participation rate, female (% of female population ages 15+) (modeled ILO estimate)”, International Labor Organization, 2014; accessed March 15, 2015.
[21] See note 19 above, idem.

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