Sengül Akcar
Ashoka 2000'ten beri   |   Turkey

Sengül Akcar

Support for Women's Work
Sengül Akcar has designed a unique, community-based foundation that educates and empowers poor women and families, particularly in urban areas. By working at the community level, Sengül's…
Devamını oku
This description of Sengül Akcar's work was prepared when Sengül Akcar was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2000.


Sengül Akcar has designed a unique, community-based foundation that educates and empowers poor women and families, particularly in urban areas. By working at the community level, Sengül's programs are increasing women's political visibility and democractic participation.

The New Idea

Sengül is increasing women's professional and personal opportunities and broadening the perception of women's role in Turkish society. She does this by enabling women to break from their traditional, limiting roles and to gain financial independence and self-respect by learning nontraditional skills, such as carpentry. She sponsors activities at local and national forums to insure that women have an opportunity to voice their priorities and to create strategic alliances with NGOs, private sector businesses, and government.

She focuses on participation and capacity building which provide the political, economic and social framework and resources for women to meet their needs, as well as organize and lead activities independent from men. Other women's organizations in and around Istanbul operate on elite objectives and methodologies, often addressing issues through an academic, rather than practical, approach.

The Problem

The tradition of civic participation, of needs-focused organizations, is just beginning to enjoy a revival in Turkey, following a virtual stand-still since the military coup of 1980.
The coup created a hostile climate for political and civic organizations; leaders banned political parties and forbade the operation of civil iniatives, claiming that the public sphere should be kept under tight control to stabilize the national regime. As a direct result of this action, numerous political and civil actors were arrested and imprisoned or, worse yet, they "disappeared." Those who survived the extraordinary normalizatioon process were either too discouraged or too frightened to participate in civil initiatives during these years.

The military coup greatly increased migration from rural Anatolia to metropolitan centers. Villagers emigrated from the countryside to the outskirts of cities such as Istanbul, where they hoped for better lives and opportunities. In the aftermath of the military coup, people believed it was too dangerous to establish ethnic neighborhoods. This relatively rapid influx of villagers to urban areas contributed to erosion of traditional community and family identity and sense of belonging. The social cohesion of rural life was replaced by an atomized, disintegrating community lifestyle that leaves many newcomers isolated, without hope and without a social network.

Turkish women, particularly those who live in poverty, are marginalized and oppressed. Not only are most women treated as second-class citizens, they often see themselves as such. Women's rights are provided under formal legal codes; however, the realities of social and cultural mores are such that, with the exception of members of the upper class, many women are prevented from actively participating as equal citizens in this society which operates under the doctrines of male soveregnity. In 1990, the UN recorded a 31% illiteracy rate among women. In 1991, only 1.8% of government officials were female, and less than 17% of property was registered under women's names. The last decade has not introduced significant changes. Blatant human rights abuses regarding women are common, and Turkey has yet to ratify the international CEDAW (Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Violence against Women) Act.

The Strategy

Sengül empowers women in the poorer districts of Istanbul to develop their own potential, to rely on themselves to meet their basic needs, and to participate in democratic processes. Many people who live in Istanbul's surrounding areas have migrated from eastern and south-eastern Turkey, where traditional rules are stronger than in the western region of the country, and educational opportunities are fewer. Among this group of women, Sengül's work is especially critical.

Many NGOs provided earthquake relief after the August 1999 disaster. One of the most urgent needs was to provide psychological and financial support to women who had lost their husbands and/or other male family members and bread-winners during the earthquake. These women were left with no means to support themselves, and many in the earthquake region had received minimal education and possessed few marketable skills. Through her organization, the Foundation for the Support of Women's Work, Sengül established a training program to teach women carpentry, a traditionally male skill. As it was not possible to find a female carpenter in Turkey to train the women, nor would the more conservative women be very receptive to being taught by a man, a female carpenter was brought in from Canada to teach the women the necessary skills.
Sengül has launched five Women's and Children's Centers in impoverished neighborhoods in and around Istanbul. Each provides a physical space where women can convene to identify and discuss problems and challenges, design solutions, and learn from each other. She hosts advocacy activities and lobbies central and local institutions in order to publicize the priorities of women among policy makers. The centers provide quality daycare for the women's children and serve as an example for other organizations with similar childcare needs elsewhere in Turkey. Through these centers, Sengül has recently launched a micro-credit program, unique to Turkey, as a result of which women are taught financial management skills traditionally reserved for men.

Sengül plans to create a network of local women's groups which function with the Foundation's support to influence local governmental administration and to increase advocacy for women both within Turkey as well as internationally. She plans to achieve this aim by involving women in establishing and strengthening local, national and international networks, utilizing international platforms, creating lobbies, sharing international experiences face-to-face and convening meetings among relevant actors both within as well outside Turkey.

Sengül does not intend to reach every single woman individually but rather targets policies that are need- and service-based. Her goal is to mobilize women and women's organizations to create policy that will acknowledge and facilitate women's role in the democratic process.

The Person

Sengül received her Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from Yildiz Technical University in 1976. After studying English in the UK, she returned to Turkey where she obtained a Master's degree in Public Administration at Bosphorus University in Istanbul and launched her foundation.

In the early 1980's, the feminist movement began to grow rapidly in Turkey. Although Sengül participated in activities of Turkish feminist groups in the early 1980's, she understood that it was necessary to empower the majority of women who were often excluded from elitist feminist circles. She was determined to establish an organization which was outside the scope of the existing women's groups in Turkey. She understood that for people to lead quality lives, those women who had no voice and were living in poverty, needed to gain a platform for active participation in society. She launched her foundation with initial financial support from family members and from the local municipality.

Sengül was one of the first to start an NGO after the 1980 military coup.

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