DIREKLI, Turkey (WOMENSENEWS)--Standing in her school's dusty courtyard during ceremonies marking the first day of classes, Eylem Irmak towers over her fellow first graders.
It's not that she's so tall. She's three years older than her classmates, a 9-year-old who is getting a belated start on her schooling.
Until this year, Irmak would have probably been spending the first day of school out working in the corn and wheat fields of Direkli, the small village in southeastern Turkey where she lives with her parents and nine siblings.
Now dressed in the traditional Turkish girls' school uniform--a blue skirt and blue shirt with frilly white collars--and holding a red balloon, Irmak says she has a simple wish. "I hope to learn how to read. I want to be able to read a book," Irmak, who has brown eyes and brown hair that's held in a ponytail by a rainbow-colored elastic band, says quietly. "I want to learn everything."
Irmak's story--the not going to school part--is shared by about a million girls in Turkey, according to United Nations, which estimates that there is an enrollment disparity between boys and girls in turkey of 640,000.
But there are now hopes that the other part of Irmak's story--her leaving the fields for a new beginning in school--will also become something more common.
Ending Enrollment Disparity
Working together with the Turkish government, the United Nations Children's Fund known as UNICEF, is running a program called "Haydi Kizlar Okula!" which roughly translates into "Come on girls, let's go to school!" It aims to eliminate the country's disparity in school enrollment between boys and girls by next year.
The project--launched last year in 10 provinces in the mostly rural and economically troubled southeast--was expanded this year into another 23, including urban areas such as Istanbul, Izmir and the capital, Ankara.
Thanks to the program, 40,000 girls who would not have otherwise gone to school started their education last year, according to UNICEF, which hopes to see that number rise to 300,000 this year.
"Girls' education is more than just reading and writing and the skills you need to get by in life; it's about public health," says Edmond McLoughney, UNICEF's representative in Turkey. Numerous studies, he says, have shown that education for girls brings lower birthrates and infant mortality. "You are affecting not just education itself, but health and quality of life in general. Of course, education is also a basic human right."
Huseyin Celik, Turkey's minister of education, says the government's support of the program is a matter of equality.
"Half of our population is women. That's half our body," says Celik, a member of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, a socially conservative party that traces its roots to the country's political Islam movement. "It's not right to only care about half of your body."
"In this program we have discrimination for the girls. We are against discrimination in other areas, but not in this case," he adds.
Various Reasons for Not Going to School
The reasons parents keep their daughters from going to school vary.
Some traditional-minded parents mistakenly believe the Koran forbids the education of girls or don't want their daughters studying together with boys. Others, like Irmak's family, put their children to work rather then send them to school. Meanwhile, Turkey's massive and underfunded school system also faces shortages of teachers and facilities--classrooms with 70 students in them or ones that go through the winter with broken windows are not unheard of--and many parents seem happier keeping their children at home than taking their chances at a dilapidated school.
Realizing the severity of the problem, organizers took an aggressive approach to convincing parents to send their girls to school.
"We started by calling it an advocacy campaign; getting the word out to the media and government," says UNICEF's McLoughney. "But we realized that you need to do more, you need to knock on doors, visit homes, talk to parents."
Going Door to Door
In Direkli, Irmak's village, teachers and volunteers trained by UNICEF go door-to-door speaking with families. "We are trying to convince them that if they send their girls to school the family will see benefits, society will see benefits," says Suleiman Akca, a 21-year-old university student who is among the volunteers. "We try to tell them that society can't progress if the girls don't go to school. We are not judging them on their customs, but we are trying to create some questions in their minds."
Volunteers also bring the government's offer of financial support for every girl a family sends to school. It's not much--usually close to $18 per month--but for many poor families it's significant.
A 20 minute drive from Direkli is the small city of Mardin, an ancient hilltop town that, with its stone houses and winding, narrow streets, still retains a distinct sense of antiquity.
One afternoon in September, a group of three professionals from the city's education department walked through the narrow streets to speak to parents who are still not letting their daughters go to school. Even though the school year had started a week earlier, they wanted to tell parents it was still not too late.
Their first stop was the home of Zahide Olgac, mother of a 7-year-old girl named Sultan. Speaking in her front courtyard, shaded by grape vines, the 35-year-old Olgac said she herself did not go to school and neither did her mother and grandmother. "My father didn't allow it. He said it was shameful for girls and boys to be together in a class."
Her husband, a truck driver who was away in Iraq at the time, opposes sending Sultan to school for the same reason. But the mother says she believes it's time to break the cycle.
"We're like animals, ignorant," says Olgac, whose head is covered by a blue-and-purple scarf. "If she studies successfully, she will help herself, she will help me." Although Olgac's husband has final say in the household, the education department workers say they had visited the household a few times before and were on the verge of convincing both parents about the importance of sending Sultan to school.
It's the same kind of cycle that Irmak, in Direkli, may now be able to break. As the school opening ceremonies begin, a crowd of men and women from the village gather in the school yard to watch the festivities.
Among the crowd is Irmak's 20-year-old sister, Nadia, who never went to school herself and spends most her days working in the village's fields. She watches with a mixture of pride and sadness.
"I feel like I lost something by not going to school," says Nadia. "It's really hard, especially if you really want to go to school. It's very depressing. I wish I could have been a doctor."
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance writer based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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