On 25 May 2021, the Women Leaders in Conflict and Health initiative, in collaboration with the Women’s Research and Implementation Centre (HÜKSAM-HUWRIC) at Hacettepe University, were privileged to host a webinar with Professor Ayşe Akın, an exemplary woman leading on the sexual and reproductive rights of women in Turkey. A medical doctor, specialising in Public Health, gynaecology and obstetrics, it was evident from the early stages of her career in a primary Health Care Centre in Çat, a small town in the eastern part of Turkey, that Prof. Akın was destined for extraordinary things.
Prof. Akın started working in Çat, where she was responsible for three health centres. Although inexperienced on paper, she was full of generosity and steadfast determination. She witnessed severe gender-based discrimination, very high yet preventable maternal and infant deaths, and therefore set out to deepen her knowledge on gender issues and gender-based violence. These foundational years of her career shaped her future career trajectory. On being invited to specialise in Public Health at Hacettepe University in Ankara, Prof Akin continued to advance her career in women’s health, including some time in the UK. She was head of the Training and Research Hospital in Çubuk District for 15 years. The hospital, in its early phase, lacked sufficient infrastructure and advance education. It was during this time that Prof. Akın started researching the causes for high maternal death rates in the region and Turkey more widely and identifying and implementing effective interventions. The impact of this work saw maternal mortality rates drop from 300 per 100,000 live births to 0 within fifteen years in Çubuk District.
A turning point in her career and advocacy work, Prof. Akın led a study on the cost of unsafe abortion on the Turkish health system. Although contraceptives had been legally available in Turkey for some time, abortion was illegal, influenced by social stigma and a pro-natalist political agenda. Self-induced, unsafe abortions were, however, widely practiced. Consequently, this led to high numbers of maternal death rates. Vast amounts of scientific research, advocacy, government consultation and sheer determination led by Prof. Akın saw the implementation of Law No. 2827 of 1983 Population Planning Law and the legalisation of safe abortion. The impact of the law saw a sharp decrease in maternal mortality rates due to unsafe abortions from 53 percent to 2 percent. Following this, in the 1990s, Prof. Akın served as General Director of Mother Child Health and Family Planning at the Ministry of Health for five years.
Advocating for the rights of women, particularly the reproductive rights of women is a challenge the world over. Prof. Akın stated that women in Turkey are not considered as individuals, but rather an intricate part of the family. While women are of course a crucial part of the concept of family, for their rights to be advanced they must also be envisaged as individuals with intersecting identities and subsequently their own needs. This will in turn lead to benefiting the wider collective, be it family or communities. Within her work, Prof. Akın has faced numerous challenges, namely political attitudes. Prof. Akın also noted that the current attitudes towards the rights of women in Turkey has regressed and this was not the prevailing attitude in 1923, when the modern state of Turkey was established. For those of us that continue to work in the sphere of advancing the rights of women and other marginalised groups across the globe, we know that the overwhelming patriarchal attitudes, values and structures embedded in societies has not changed sufficiently for gender equality to be achieved, and that the political will for any change is overwhelmingly lacking. We only need to look so far as the Global Gender Gap Report 2021 in which it is estimated to take 135.6 years to close the gender gap worldwide. Inspired by Prof. Akın, this is not something we can watch manifest nonchalantly. We must rise to the challenge, because as Prof. Akın notes, this simply means we must undertake more advocacy work, which takes time and enormous team efforts. She makes it clear that we must make systems level changes if we are to envision any real and lasting change. Engaging with stakeholders and decision-makers, diplomatically, is also key in advocacy. Moreover, knowing your work, the culture and the people.
Prof. Akın is globally recognised for her work in Turkey. She is currently a consultant for a number of international health organisations including the World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and has chaired various advisory boards and management committees of the WHO. In 2019 at the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25, Prof. Akın received the “Service Award” for her contribution to human rights and women’s rights.
While reflecting on her extraordinary experiences, Prof. Akın delved into the more personal side of these experiences, drawing on mistakes made, lessons learned and relentlessly persevering despite several obstacles. Firstly, role models play a vital role in career and personal development. Secondly, teamwork is critical, it is never about serving the self but rather the greater good. Thirdly, the positive impact of research on the lives of individuals must be the focus of all academic research.
To summarise, Prof. Akın left the audience with three main principles in realising their leadership ambitions.
- Be knowledgeable about people, regardless of their identity, and understand their unique needs.
- You need to be strong enough with the necessary qualifications and experiences. These do not happen spontaneously, but you must make a real and continuous effort. This requires experiences based on your practices, not only theory.
- Never give up on what you believe is correct and make efforts to solve the problems, no matter the barriers in front of you (be those influenced by traditions or politicians).
Despite Prof Akın’s own obstacles, she has left an incredible and lasting legacy, one that has benefited the lives of women in decreasing maternal mortalities, impacting policy and legislation in Turkey, and continuing to inspire her students, colleagues, health workers and those fighting the world over for justice and equality.
By Kristen Meagher