At the age of 17, Mazlum is mature beyond his years. He has been contributing to the family income since the age of eight and is known in his predominantly Kurdish neighborhood as a conscientious citizen. Mazlum's formal schooling, however, is severely lacking. In his third year of primary education, he left school after his teacher hit him for speaking Kurdish on school premises. He can read and write and his Turkish is fluent, but he has been unemployed for a year and has had much more difficulty finding work than his more educated relatives. "I wouldn't be in this position if I'd stayed in school," he says with visible regret.
Although Mazlum's altercation with his teacher was the ostensible reason for his decision to leave school, poverty also weighed heavily in his decision. Mazlum was working even before he left school in order to help provide for his family, leaving him little time to devote to his studies. He began working full time as soon as he was in a position to do so. In the meantime, Mazlum's sister Pelek has also left school, despite not having finished secondary education. The siblings' situation is by no means unique. Almost half of Turkish teenagers are not enrolled in secondary schools, and the overwhelming majority of those who are not come from underprivileged backgrounds.
Officially, Turkish students are legally obliged to have at least eight years of formal schooling. Absenteeism, however, is widespread. In the poorer and generally more conservative southeastern section of Turkey, many families simply cannot afford to buy the supplies necessary to send all their children to school. The government provides cash transfers in order to enable families of lesser means to keep kids in school, but these transfers are minimal. Over the 2007-2008 academic year in the city of Gaziantep, for example, the transfers averaged 20 Turkish Lira (about $15) per family. This amount is barely enough to cover the cost of a child's school supplies for a year, and it certainly does not compensate for the family income lost by keeping the child outside the workforce.
In such circumstances, access to education is frequently determined by gender. Traditional cultural attitudes make poorer parents reluctant to provide their daughters with even rudimentary schooling, opting instead to keep the girls at home and have them help the family. As a result, female literacy hovers around 80 per cent, well below the national average. The picture for secondary education is equally disheartening; the enrollment rate for girls trails that for boys by about 8 percent.
The state does little to ensure that families send their children to school for the mandatory eight years. "Dropping out is not defined in Turkish law, and sanctions for families that do not comply with the eight-year rule are relatively lenient," says Aytuğ Şaşmaz of ERG, an Istanbul-based think tank whose research is focused on education. "Those sanctions that do exist are not well implemented."
The implications for Turkey's future are worrying. An ILO report published in 2007 pointed out that Turkey's demographic composition is undergoing a fundamental change, with birth rates and death rates slowing down considerably. Turkey's population is currently very young, but as it begins to age, the percentage of the population that is of working age will begin to decrease. According to the report, an uneducated and, therefore, under-productive workforce will have debilitating consequences, including lower wages for many workers. Since most children who do not complete school cite their families' economic difficulties as the main reasons for withdrawing, the problem of children leaving school early will inevitably be exacerbated by this situation.
In spite of existing problems, there is room for optimism. Enrollment in the first year of secondary education has shown steady improvement over the last two decades and currently stands at 86 percent. Turkcell, a GSM operator, established a program called Snowdrops to increase girls' access to education in 2000. UNICEF, in conjunction with the Ministry of Education, followed suit in 2003. One of the national newspapers, the daily Milliyet, also manages a project by the name of 'Baba Beni Okula Gönder' (Father, send me to school) that builds accommodations in city centers for girls from remote villages with no school.
These programs have met with considerable success. Turkcell's venture, which provides assistance to girls wanting to complete secondary or higher education, has granted over 18,000 scholarships since its inception. But the current economic crisis may well mean cutbacks on these projects. Snowdrops and Baba Beni Okula Gönder are both funded primarily by donations from the private sector; with a record 13.8% contraction in the economy in the first three months of 2009, it is unlikely that these contributions will remain unscathed.
For Mazlum and Pelek, it seems to be too late to consider a return to school. It remains to be seen if the tens of thousands of other at-risk children in Turkey will be able to look forward to better opportunities.