Healthcare in Kurdish. What’s the problem?

Turkish Minister of Health Recep Akdağ says there's no need for Kurdish

What is the relationship between a healthy society and receiving healthcare in your mother tongue? I’m not a doctor, so I don’t know the answer. But I’m going to wager a bet that the better the communication between doctor and patient, the better the treatment, which will lead to a healthier society. Does that sound reasonable?

That was the thinking too of the Diyarbakır Chamber of Physicians. They asked for the use of Kurdish in the region’s healthcare services so that better service could be provided. Turkish Minister of Health Recep Akdağ rejected the proposal, claiming that there was ‘no need for it.’

Akdağ stated that the ‘number of people not knowing Turkish is very few, only some elders and women. But, there is always someone around to speak Kurdish; hence it is not a problem.’ This is an ongoing strategy employed by the Turkish state to deprive Kurds of the right to access to healthcare.

If communication were not a problem, as Akdağ claims, then the Diyarbakır Chamber of Physicians probably would not have produced a book of basic Kurdish phrases, aimed at helping doctors working in the region to communicate more effectively with their Kurdish-speaking patients and to make more accurate diagnoses.

Dr. Selçuk Mızralı (right) working hard to ensure Kurdish makes its way into the healthcare system.

Last year when the book was completed, one thousand copies were published. Two doctors and a linguist spent around six months working on the booklet.

Dr. Selçuk Mızralı, who was president of the Diyarbakır Chamber of Physicians when the guide was written, said that it offered basic grammar and pronunciation rules, as well as basic vocabulary. The most important part of the guide is a Kurdish translation of a list of questions that doctors ask patients during the examination.

Early feedback by doctors was that they would like possible answers by patients to be included. Mızraklı pointed out that women and children of the region and doctors who are sent to the area for an obligatory period face most communication problems, and that this affects the quality of a diagnosis.

‘Asking the right questions is very important. A good diagnosis is 90 percent dependent on the questions asked during examination. A common language will also reduce the time spent on each examination.’

Dr. Selçuk Mızralı is a longtime and ardent advocate of Kurdish language rights. As an organiser of the First Mesopotamian Health Days congress (22-24 October 2009) in Diyarbakir he ensured that Kurdish, together with English and Turkish, was for the first time recognised as a medical congress language. Additionally all the presentations made in English and Turkish were simultaneously translated into Kurdish.

Earlier this month at a health conference organised by the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), Aysel Tuğluk, DTK co-chair, said that the conference focused ‘not only physical health care and access to health care but also recovering the trauma and dealing with social and cultural problems.’

She criticised the AKP saying that Turkey is supposed to be a social state but the green card (health insurance card for low-income population) is ‘abused by the government and launched like a gift from AKP in order to gain votes.’ She also said that health care is a fundamental right and should not be abused for the sake of politics, adding that local offices are engaged in illegal intimidation of the Kurdish population by cancelling their green cards if they become politically active.

In 2008 Amnesty International admonished the Turkish government for threats to rescind healthcare. Said Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s expert on Turkey: ‘The steps to deprive children suspected of involvement in the demonstrations and their families of health care and other benefits are a form of collective punishment and violate the right of all persons to health and to an adequate standard of living, without discrimination.’

Politicians are sometimes punished for ‘politicising’ the healthcare issue. Abdullah Demirbaş, mayor of the municipality of Sur in the city of Diyarbakır, often uses Kurdish in his official capacity. A few years back, for the mere suggestion that his district print public-health pamphlets in Kurdish, he was accused (but later acquitted) of aiding a terrorist organisation.

The issue of access to healthcare is an important one that does not get much attention outside of the region. It is a problem in Syria as well for thousands of Kurds who have no access to health care because they have been denied citizenship.

[For an overview of health problems faced by many Kurds in Turkey as a result of years of war, see Kristiina Koivunen’s excellent work: The Invisible War in North Kurdistan]


Medical Chamber request to use Kurdish rejected. ANF, 13 December 2010.

Korkut, Tolga. Medical Association Prints Kurdish Guide for Doctors. Bianet, 24 March 2009.

Mesopotamia Health Days

Toumani, Meline. Minority Rules. New York Times, 17 February 2008.

Turk: DTK to work to extend democracy. ANF, 07 December 2010.

Turkey: Governor threatens to deprive Kurdish demonstrators and their families of health care. Amnesty International, 11 November 2008.


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