In Turkey, a narrow victory in April’s constitutional referendum granted President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unlimited powers, calling into question whether women will benefit from the economic reforms promised by this conservative strongman infamous for his anti-feminist views.

“A woman who refuses maternity and gives up housekeeping ... is a half [person],” Erdogan said in a June 2016 speech. The Turkish government’s policies have mostly been in line with this view.

Measures enacted over the past decade paid women to take care of their children, or granted them longer unpaid leave. However these policies did little to relieve women of unpaid work duties that keep them from earning money to support their families. Authorities also refused to enforce laws that require corporations to offer on-site child care so more women can return to work after childbirth.

Experts argue that not only women, but also private companies and the economy, stand to benefit from changing course in Turkey and offering women affordable childcare options.

Adding one year of preschool education in Turkey could increase female labor force participation by 9 percent, and gender parity in employment could increase per capita income by 22 percent, according to the World Bank.

In Turkey, 89.6 percent of children are taken care of by their mothers, according to data from TurkStat, the country’s official statistics agency. Only 2.4 percent of children are in child care facilities.

As a result, only one of every three women in Turkey participates in the labor force — the lowest rate among the 35 OECD countries — mostly in Europe and North America. Although in the Middle East and North Africa region the average is 28 percent, Turkey, a European Union candidate, often compares itself with its Western counterparts. In neighboring Greece, the labor force participation rate for women is 59.9 percent and in Sweden it’s 79.9 percent, according to OECD data from 2015.

Contrary to popular belief, Turkish women are not staying out of the labor force because of their level of education or the society’s conservatism, said professor İpek İlkkaracan, a prominent economist at Istanbul Technical University (ITU) who is known for research on unpaid care work.

In a striking study, İlkkaracan demonstrated the labor force participation rate among urban, single, female high school school graduates in Turkey is 63 percent whereas this rate falls to below 30 percent for their married counterparts.

“The problem is not that women are not entering the labor force, it’s that they’re leaving once they get married,” İlkkaracan said.

According to one study, when a Turkish woman gets married the time she spends on unpaid care work increases by 49 percent, whereas men’s decrease by 38 percent.

Yet even while two-thirds of Turkey's women sit out of the work force to do unpaid care work at home, the country is home to a unique corporate child care experiment that the United Nations is holding up as a model for other nations. Yeşim Tekstil, a textile factory in Bursa, Turkey’s fourth largest city and an industrial powerhouse, has offered its employees free child care on site since 1987.

This year, UN Women and UN Global Compact recognized Yeşim’s 30-year-old preschool as a model for other companies looking to create a more attractive work environment for mothers. In January, representatives from Better Work, an International Labour Organization-affiliated NGO dedicated to improving workers’ conditions, visited Yeşim to study how similar child care facilities could be implemented in Jordan.

Most women do not work outside the home in Turkey, much to the detriment of the economy. Increasing access to quality day care, like this one, may change that

Yeşim Tekstil 

Yeşim Tekstil’s 32,000-square foot preschool spans an entire factory floor with a capacity for 1,000 children. Around 3 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, women lined up at its entrance to pick up their children. Among them was Fatma Uzan who just completed her 8-hour shift producing garments for international brands like Nike, Gap, Zara and H&M.

“I almost quit in 2004 when I had my daughter. My supervisor encouraged me to try the daycare at the factory. That’s how I stayed,” Uzan recalled in an interview. Today she’s here to pick up her 4-year-old son.

“I spend more time at Yeşim than in my home. I feel like I’m leaving my son at my mom’s. It feels that safe,” Uzan said. “I can’t believe I almost quit.”

Data suggests that had she left, she would be dedicating her day to unpaid care work including cleaning, cooking and looking after her children. The average Turkish woman spends 4 hours and 17 minutes a day taking care of their home and family, whereas men only spend 51 minutes, according to data from TurkStat.

Two of every three Turkish women say their responsibilities at home prevent them from working, according to data from Turkstat, whereas in the European Union only 19 percent of economically inactive women say that it’s due to their care responsibilities.

Melek Köseer, 39, too could have been among the women who leave the labor force once they get married and have children. Instead she’s a white collar worker in Yeşim’s print department.

Köseer had been working at Yeşim for eight years when her daughter was born in 2005. “I quit my job to take care of my daughter — as if I was the first woman to have had a child,” she remembered with a laugh. Two years later, when she decided to work again, she was welcomed back by her supervisor. Eventually both her children went to Yeşim’s preschool.

“I couldn’t have come back to work if we didn’t have free child care here. How could I? There are no preschools in the industrial part of town, how am I going to pick up my kid when I get off work at 6:30 p.m.? And how am I supposed to pay for it anyways?” she questioned.

About 40 percent of Turkish families don’t have preschools in their vicinity and two out three families can’t afford them, according to a recent study by the Bernard van Leer Foundation. In one other study, 80 percent of Turkish women who quit their jobs after having children said that they would return to the work force if they were to receive financial aid to pay for preschool.

Providing such services is expensive. Mother Child Education Foundation (AÇEV), an NGO that has been at the forefront of the effort to widen children’s access to preschool since the 1990s, has calculated that it costs on average 1000 Turkish lira ($270) per child per month to operate a preschool with minimum quality standards.

“If left to the private sector, an entrepreneur would need to charge more than this amount in order to make a profit. We cannot expect low income families to afford such private services in a country where minimum wage is 1400 TL ($380 U.S. dollars)” commented Yasemin Sirali, AÇEV’s International Programs Advisor. “We need public financing so all children can have the opportunity to access quality preschool education” she added.

Spending such money pays off for a country’s economy as preschool education programs could increase the number of working mothers in Turkey by 14 percent, according to a World Bank study.

A 13-year-old Turkish law requires companies with more than 150 female workers to have child care facilities on premises. However, most companies either deliberately keep the number of female workers below 150 or ignore the law and pay a small fine, the equivalent of $365 to $1,000 a month.

According to data from Ministry of Education, there is only one company in Turkey that has a child care facility on premises. Anecdotal evidence suggests there are more, but it’s difficult to pinpoint how many.

Yeşim spends 450 lira ($122) a month per enrolled child, bringing the total annual cost of the preschool to 934,000 lira ($258,000). It’s more than a social responsibility project for the company.

“When employers offer such benefits, they actually invest in their own business,” said Dilek Cesur, Yeşim’s corporate communications director.

“When Yeşim was established in 1983, our founders realized that most of their workers were women and a day care center was fundamental to their happiness and productivity,” added Cesur.

In 1983, Yeşim had only 300 workers. Today there are 3,000 employees, 51 percent of which are women. The 80-acre factory produces 150,000 garments a day. It’s the 10th largest employer in Bursa.

“Knowing that their children are safe and at an arm’s distance allows the female employees to put their soul in their work. They are more productive, they make fewer mistakes,” said Cesur.  

There is a continuing debate among experts as to whose responsibility it is to provide child care options to families. The World Bank argues that with fewer regulations and more financial aid the private sector could mean affordable childcare in Turkey. Others, including İlkkaracan, argue it’s the state’s responsibility to offer free preschool education to all families.  

Recently, the government has announced it aims to raise preschool enrollment among 4- to 5-year-olds to 70 percent by the year 2019. The Hümanist Büro and Bernard van Leer Foundation calculated that the cost of investment for such a project would be 4 billion lira ($1 billion), in addition to the cost of educating teachers, which would be 450 million lira ($122 million) and the annual cost afterward to operate the facilities would be near 1.3 billion liras ($350 million).

It’s not yet clear when this project would start, or whether the government would undertake such a large investment. Turkey currently spends only 0.04 percent of its GDP on preschools. The average in European Union countries is 0.52 percent.

What’s certain is that investing in preschool could be part of the solution to Turkey’s increasing financial troubles.

Turkey was once seen as among the most promising emerging markets. Even though it stagnated during the global financial crisis in 2008-2009, Turkey managed to bounce back and continued to create new jobs after 2009.

“The Turkish economy experienced much less impressive growth rates after 2011 and contracted for the first time since 2009 in the last quarter of 2016. The unemployment rate has gone up to 12.7 percent, a 1.9 point increase since last year,” explained Can Selçuki, an economist with Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Stdies, an Istanbul-based independent think-tank.

“In the face of this new low-growth period, fewer jobs may mean that more women stay out of the job market,” Selçuki said.

The relative risk of poverty in dual-earner households is 50 percent less than the poverty risk faced by male-breadwinner households, according to a 2013 study by İlkkaracan. She suggests that public investment in social care service expansion could serve as an antipoverty strategy.

Fatma Yıldız, a 33-year-old machine operator, is among the women who’ve come to pick up their children from Yeşim's day care. She’s an elementary school graduate. She had struggled about coming back to work after she had her first child, who is now 13. "My husband and I, we thought we'd give the day care a try for a few months, but we had already decided that I would leave work to take care of my kid if it didn't work out," she recalls. The daycare worked.

“Were it not for this option, I would have never come back to work after my first child was born.” she says holding her 2-year-old daughter Zeynep. Her older children, 13 and 8, both went to preschool at the factory.

Yıldız starts her day at 5 a.m. She spends the 25 minute ride to work on the bus playing with her daughter. During the day, she has two 45 minute breaks to nurse her. “I don’t worry about Zeynep when I’m here,” Yıldız says. “If she gets sick, there are doctors here. If there is an emergency, I’m 5 minutes away. Frankly my older kids worry me more.” 

Yıldiz is now studying to get her middle school diploma

Turkey’s GDP per capita was $24,309 in 2015, well below the OECD average of $41,039. It’s $26,268 in Greece and $49,490 in Sweden.

Now the question is whether President Erdogan will use his vast power to tap into this massive potential to bring more women into the workforce and boost the economy, or continue his current path and ask women to have at least three children and stay at home to take care of them.

Pinar Ersoy is a journalist for The Fuller Project for International Reporting. 

This story was produced as part of the Global Gender Parity Initiative journalism project at New America, which seeks to elevate stories about under-reported gender equality issues, and is supported by the Hewlett Foundation.

From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI