“I can be sent back to prison at any time»
Sakine Esen Yilmaz and Mehmet Bozgeyik, the current and former general secretaries of the Turkish education union, E?itim Sen, are to be presented with the FNV’s « Febe Elisabeth Vasquez » prize at the end of May. The prize is awarded to trade union leaders who have fought for human and trade union rights and democratic values in particularly difficult situations, often at the risk of their lives.
EI meets Sakine Esen Yilmaz, the first woman to be elected leader of E?itim Sen.
You have frequently faced repression at the hands of the Turkish authorities as a result of your trade union activities. What is your situation at the moment?
I spent six months in prison in 2009 for trade union demands about teaching children in their mother tongue. In 2012 I spent 10 months in prison, supposedly for having supported an illegal organisation, even though all the evidence presented at my trial was linked to my trade union activities, such as a march organised to celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March. I have been sentenced to over ten years in prison for charges related to my trade union activities. I was released but I cannot leave Turkish territory. I can be arrested and sent back to prison at any time. The same applies to 96 members or leaders of E?itim Sen and other trade unions affiliated to the KESK confederation, all tried for the same charges.
What were conditions like when you were in prison?
In 2009, there were 12 of us in a cell intended for six people. We often slept on the ground and we were psychologically tortured: the smallest infringement of the rules would lead to a spell in solitary confinement. We were also subjected to very humiliating body searches.
In 2012, conditions in prison were not quite so bad. The prison guards did not mistreat us, thanks to the support we had from Turkish and international trade unions. I was locked up with five other detainees. Together we made sure we kept ourselves busy during the day, and remained as informed as possible about the outside world.
Prison makes you lose your social skills. When I was released, I was worried about communicating with a wider range of people because for months I had not spoken to anyone other than the same fellow detainees. Today I am still a little fearful of enclosed spaces and when my doorbell rings I always wonder if “they” are coming to take me away again.
Where do you find the motivation to continue the struggle despite the repression?
I am taking advantage of my freedom at the moment to fight for a better future. If we want a free society in Turkey, we have to resolve the problems relating to education, the economy, child labour, etc. I want to be part of the struggle for democracy and human rights.
My struggle is also about the humiliation I face as a woman and a Kurd. I no longer know my mother tongue because in the public education system I was obliged to learn Turkish, and I ended up forgetting Kurdish. As a woman, I cannot forget that my mother and I suffered male domination in our families. My mother’s parents would not allow her to go to school because she was a girl. Today she still wants to learn, to make up for everything she lost out on during her childhood. I don’t want other women going through the same thing. That is why I am fighting through E?itim Sen for girls’ right to education.
In 2013 EI adopted a Global Gender Equality Action Plan. Has it been taken up by Egitim Sen at all?
Implementing a gender integration policy is very important for us. E?itim Senorganises lots of seminars, training and actions related to gender equality in the education system. School enrolment rates for girls are lower than for boys, reflected for example in the 130,000 marriages of girls who are still minors in Turkey over the last three years. We are campaigning against these early marriages, we are also campaigning for the language used in school to be changed so that girls are not described as weaker people.
Gender equality also needs to be applied in the trade unions. We have noticed that a lot of women are unable to attend trade union meetings because they have to look after their children. At the E?itim Senwomen’s conference in 2007, we decided that every branch of our union must provide a room where children can be looked after during their meetings. The children are cared for either by the women members themselves (taking it in turns) or by a baby sitter. At the moment, half of our local branches are equipped with this type of room. The others have not done so yet owing to financial problems, but things are moving in the right direction.
What are E?itim Sen’s other priorities?
In 2012, the Turkish government imposed a major reform of education, the « 4+4+4 » (relating to the number of years of primary, lower secondary and higher secondary education). Islamic religious education became compulsory for everyone. This school year the majority of new teachers hired are teachers of Islam, yet there is a serious shortage of teachers for geography, physics, etc.
We are also seeing an important development in the theological secondary schools (called « Imam Hatip »). This reform has made child labour worse, because secondary school children can work while appearing in the statistics as children (controls are very rare). The number of children who drop out after primary school is steadily increasing in Turkey, which is also leading to more early marriages.
Only a few minorities are allowed their own mother-tongue schools, while others such as the Kurds or the Syriacs do not have the right, except in the private education system. However we are against any privatisation of education (which is the general trend in Turkey). And even in the case of private schools, the law obliges them to translate the official curriculum, whose ideology is too nationalistic and too Islamic.
We are running permanent campaigns on all these issues, they attract the public’s attention and enable us to recruit new members. A case in point is the campaign on clothing at the workplace: E?itim Senwon a relaxing of the rules from the government. Women teachers can now wear trousers to school if they wish. We are continuing this campaign, mainly to allow male teachers to wear the clothes they like to school.
How do you recruit members to Egitim Sen, given that they will be at risk of repression?
Everyone is afraid of the government. Those who are members of the unions close to the government have a greater chance of advancing in their career. These trade unions therefore continue to attract members, even if they sometimes take part in policies that go against workers’ interests. In 2013 for example, following collective bargaining in the public sector, the yellow unions agreed that all civil servants would have a pay rise of 3%, which is far lower than the rate of inflation.
The government puts enormous pressure on our members. Hundreds of teachers affiliated to
E?itim Sen have suffered all sorts of repression over the last few years...We must therefore be very active to ensure that our 114,000 members stay affiliated. We are by their side from the first sign of harassment. We offer lots of opportunities for training, both for our delegates and for all members. A lot of social activities are organised in the local branches: photography courses, musical theatre courses, trips to the countryside, sports tournaments, literary activities, competitions for children, etc. They create links between the teacher members of E?itim Sen and between delegates. For a teacher who arrives in a new town, the union is the ideal place to get help, to become integrated into the town.
These social activities, the training and our permanent campaigns contribute to creating an attractive image of E?itim Sen.