'Of course women and girls are affected more': Turkey's feminists lead the post-earthquake response to rebuild lives

Selver Buyukkeles, 28, member of Mor Cati (Purple Roof) Women's Solidarity Feminist group, poses during an interview in Hatay on March 6, 2023, one month after a massive earthquake struck southeastern Turkey
6 min read
16 May, 2023

On February 6th, in the aftermath of the tragic double earthquake, a group of around 30 female activists, volunteers and civil society members gathered in Istanbul to strategize on how to provide aid and assistance to those impacted by the disaster.

A group of approximately 300-400 women, known as the Feminist Solidarity for Disaster Group, joined forces to coordinate relief efforts with the Free Women's Movement (TJA) and the Rosa Women's Association, both of which are Kurdish women's organizations located in the south-eastern Diyarbakir province.

A group of individuals travelled to the area affected by the earthquake, while another group sent trucks loaded with sanitary products for women to Adiyaman, one of the 11 provinces in southern Turkey that were hit by the disaster. The items provided included menstrual pads, underwear, diapers, hygiene kits, slippers, clothing, washbowls, brooms, soap, shampoo, detergent, toilet paper, and essential groceries.

A final group organised trucks containing essential female products to be dispatched to Antakya, which suffered some of the worst destruction.

"You would hear people saying things like 'sending a box of pads won’t change anything'"

“When we started working on the ground, we found that women-specific needs were dismissed”, Bade Baser, a member of the Feminist Solidarity for Disaster Group, recalled to The New Arab, alluding to the low supply of basic items like sanitary pads which were commonly treated as minor issues.

“You would hear people saying things like sending a box of pads won’t change anything."

From the beginning, the feminist relief group has acted upon the requests of female survivors of the disaster, taking their needs into consideration.

Referring to women’s hygiene, Pinar Uzeltuzenci, another member of the Feminist Solidarity for Disaster Group, pointed out that not having personal care essentials such as wax or razors for hair removal prevents many from being out in public. “We’ve met women who are too ashamed to leave their tents because they have hair on their face”, she told The New Arab, noting how such limitation keeps them more “caged” in the private sphere.

Ahead of International Women's Day, Turkish feminists hold a banner that reads "We will stop the earthquake, death and femicide" [Getty Images]
Ahead of International Women's Day, Turkish feminists hold a banner that reads "We will stop the earthquake, death and femicide" [Getty Images]

When delivering donated clothing, two volunteers remarked to The New Arab that it is important to be culturally sensitive to the needs of women in quake-struck provinces in the south, known to be conservative and choose dark-coloured clothes instead of white or colourful outfits.

Access to sanitary facilities in the disaster zone is another gender-specific issue. Women have had to walk long distances to find the nearest toilet or look for a hidden spot in the open if they are not accompanied by male relatives who can watch over them.

Pinar explained the problem of presuming the earthquake impacted everybody equally. “Of course women and girls are affected more. Already burdened with child care and housework, their responsibilities have increased exponentially."

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In addition to meeting basic material needs, the feminist solidarity group has offered emotional support. In the Narlikuyu district of Adiyaman, female activists and volunteers have established a women's tent at the campsite, which is managed by the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) and provides shelter for civilians of various religious, ethnic, and sectarian backgrounds.

The tent provides a secure environment exclusively for women survivors to gather, enjoy tea, have discussions about various topics, and exchange earthquake experiences.

Bade emphasised their commitment to not only distributing essential items but also to express solidarity with survivors and spend quality time with them.

Feminist volunteers are available for women who are willing to share their encounters with gender-based violence, as there have been more reports of domestic abuse in the affected region. Qualified psychologists are referred to those who require socio-psychological assistance. Additionally, the group will assist women in identifying appropriate professionals and organizations if they need help in specific areas.

"Access to sanitary facilities in the disaster zone is another gender-specific issue. Women have had to walk long distances to find the nearest toilet or look for a hidden spot in the open if they are not accompanied by male relatives who can watch over them"

The Mor Cati Women's Shelter Foundation, an active participant in the feminist network, is dedicated to battling violence against women in disaster-stricken areas. The foundation offers psychological, social, and legal support, as well as operates a secure women's shelter, to aid those affected by gender-based violence. Furthermore, they distribute essential items for women and manage donations.

Counting on a large pool of volunteers country-wide, the women’s organisation made a field visit to the earthquake-impacted zone in late February, in Malatya, Adıyaman, Kahramanmaraş, Gaziantep, Antakya and Adana, and conducted an assessment.

“In the first month of the earthquake, the needs were very urgent”, Elif Bilgic a member of Mor Cati, said to The New Arab, based on their field observations, hinting at the lack of clean water, toilets and electricity.

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The volunteer noted that infrastructure problems continue to pose a security risk for women. In many instances, toilets are located far outside the tent areas in poorly lightened spots. She also underlined that the difficult living conditions add to the caregiving and housework burden of women as they have had to give care to their extended families and meet their domestic needs.

“Then after the first month, many women in the tent cities began contacting us regarding the domestic violence they were suffering and asking for support”, Elif told. Social workers and other trained voluntary staff from Mor Cati were deployed to the affected zones to provide psychological support. “As feminists, we are not helping people, we are supporting each other”, she went on to say.

During its field visit, Mor Cati found that public institutions in charge of providing services to women who are exposed to violence were not sufficiently working on psycho-social needs, and there were obstacles hindering their access to support.

The team learnt that the offices of these institutions, also affected by the destructive shock, had been either closed or relocated to hard-to-reach locations, and public officials had no knowledge of where to direct the women.

They also observed that employees in state-run women’s shelters were not equipped according to the specific needs arising after the earthquake, and law enforcement officers were unprepared in dealing with women victims of violence.

“One big shortfall we still find is the lack of coordination between state institutions in handling cases of violence against women”, Elif complained, “we haven’t seen any action plan from the state on combatting violence against women in the quake-hit areas."

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The Feminist Solidarity for Disaster Group has continued to support the countless victims of the terrifying earthquake beyond the emergency stage, filling the gap in the face of the inadequate state response. It has been operating in Adiyaman as well as in Antakya, where a female solidarity tent was newly set up for ad-hoc activities and coordination work.

The group realises that the ongoing needs of most disaster victims are still humanitarian and infrastructural, adding the need for victims to move to container homes to then secure permanent housing eventually.

“It feels like we’re still in the early phase of the earthquake”, Pinar concluded, “people cannot see their future as long as they live in very precarious conditions”.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec