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Turkey’s earthquake victims at heart of International Women's Day marches

The earthquakes that ravaged 11 provinces in southern Turkey also amplified the socio-economic inequalities between men and women in the region. 
Women take part in a rally ahead of International Women's Day, Istanbul, Turkey, March 6, 2022.

“The destruction you see here is worse than war,” Zeynep Koygulu Yesildag said, speaking from a make-shift greenhouse where her family now lives after two earthquakes destroyed her home in Yesilkoy, a village in Hatay province. “There is nothing here — no tents, no food, little water. But we have to go on.” 

When the first temblor with a 7.8 magnitude hit Turkey’s southeast in the early hours of Feb. 6, Yesildag was not at her home with her husband and three children but at the one-bedroom house of her bedridden mother. She could not get her mother out of the house by herself, and stayed inside as parts of the building collapsed. Eventually, she managed to leave the house, and with her husband's help they took her mother, in the late stages of cancer, to the greenhouse; they arrived there before the second quake hit at noon. Exposed to poor hygienic conditions, no medical care and no means to get to a hospital, Yesildag’s mother died a few days later. “She spend her last days under absolute horrendous conditions in the greenhouse,” Yesildag told Al-Monitor. 

A month after the quake, the mother of three is struggling to take care of her family; they decided to remain on their land rather than go to one of the tent towns. “We asked for tents but were told there were none. I walked for an hour yesterday to get some food packs,” she said. “I try to maintain a minimum hygiene standard — many diseases are going around, particularly affecting women. My sister-in-law is sick already.” 

In nearby Gaziantep, the largest of the 11 provinces ravaged by the killer earthquakes and hundreds of aftershocks, opposition deputy Aylin Nazliaka said that the situation in the tent towns was no better. “A quake victim in Adiyaman told me that she was only able to obtain a tent after 15 days,” Nazliaka, head of the women’s branch of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), told journalists in a March 8 press conference marking International Women's Day. “They are now two families in one tent with two beds, which means they have to take turns sleeping.” 

The female earthquake victims have been the main focus of Turkey's International Women’s Day activities this year. A women’s rally on Sunday, organized by We Will Stop Femicides Platform, called on the government to resign following its failure to prevent shoddy construction before the earthquake and bring timely emergency aid to the people after the disaster. As women gathered in Istanbul for the traditional Women’s Night Walk Wednesday afternoon, Amnesty International said the call for action was “particularly relevant” after the earthquake. “Tonight’s march must go ahead without the bans, beatings and other police violence that have marred previous years. Peaceful protesters’ calls for action to protect human rights are particularly relevant and pressing given the context of the current humanitarian crisis that has resulted from the catastrophic earthquakes,” said Esther Major, Amnesty International’s senior research adviser in Europe. 

After the police blocked thousands of women protesters from Istiklal Avenue, the main pedestrian artery in downtown Istanbul, they gathered in the Cihangir neighborhood Wednesday night, shouting for the government to step down. "We are angry, we are in mourning, we are in revolt," said one banner.

Some women, such as the volunteers from CHP-run Istanbul municipality, are spending the day on a purple-colored bus carrying sanitary products and other supplies to the women in Hatay and other provinces hit by the quakes that killed more than 46,000 people.  

In Gaziantep, the media-savvy Nazliaka launched a fierce attack against the government and its social policies before the May 14 elections. “Those who have urged women to have three children — what have they done regarding the special needs of 226,000 pregnant women in the region?” she asked. “Some of them — under stress and out in the cold — run the risk of miscarriage. Lactating mothers have gone dry due to a lack of nourishment. Some children known to be saved under the rubble have gone missing.” 

Busra Tunca, a volunteer who spent 15 days in Harbiye, a town in Hatay province, said that women carry the burden of the disaster. “It is the women who try to organize the cramped living quarters — tents, containers, private cars —  clean up with the limited means they can find, tend to the sick and even line up for aid,” she told Al-Monitor. “I have observed men sitting in front of the tents and socializing, but women do not have time.”

Tunca said women also shy away from expressing their needs, particularly if they are health-related. “Women — unlike men — are unable to express their problems,” she noted. “At first, they needed hygiene products and could not bring themselves to ask for them, particularly if men were nearby. We would silently hand it to them in a box so they would not be embarrassed. After we solved that problem, many women suffered vaginal infections caused by the lack of toilets, showers and clean underwear. Again, women did not talk to us about their genital problems, and even if they did, the drugs were tough to find, even at the medical centers. Some resorted to traditional — and often wrong — methods, such as the use of garlic or vinegar to get rid of itchings.”  

She stressed that aid for women needs to include mobile clinics and women-only tents. “There are some but not enough,” she added.

Nazliaka announced that the CHP would establish women’s support containers in the quake region where women could go for their immediate needs. In addition, Canan Gullu, president of the Federation of Women's Associations of Turkey, announced last week that she had obtained private sector financing to establish a “purple shelter” in Adiyaman, a town whose residents bitterly complained of being forgotten in aid efforts. The shelter would provide a safe space for women who fear for their safety or face violence or harassment and get them legal help, Gullu said.

UN Women Turkey Country Director Asya Varbanova talked to Al-Monitor about the challenges women face during crises. “Due to existing inequalities and gender roles, women and girls are affected differently by the earthquakes and require targeted support in line with their needs. During crises, the risk of violence against women increases. Preliminary data and information show that women and girls face particular challenges in accessing essential services and vital relief items to remain safe and cover their basic needs for appropriate shelter, hygiene, sanitation, health care and protection,” she said. 

Varbanova noted that UN Women mounted a swift response in support of the government-led reaction to the disaster, together with public authorities, civil society organizations, other UN agencies and private sector partners. For example, the UN body has partnered with the Women’s Center Foundation (KAMER), a women’s organization with 21 branches in the southeast of Turkey. The organization has been distributing aid packages on a daily basis, which contain sanitary pads, underwear, diapers and other essential items for women and girls. They also provide psycho-social support to women and girls.

More projects are likely to follow. “We are working on various assessments to provide up-to-date information on women’s needs and priorities,” Varbanova said. “We are preparing programs to support the restoration of women’s livelihoods, such as support for women’s businesses and cooperatives.” 

“Women’s Labor 2023,” a report prepared by the Public Services Employees Union of Turkey, or Genel-Is, states that women constitute only one-fourth of the regional labor force. The report says that half of the female workers are either unregistered or seasonal, which makes them ineligible for government subsidies made available to registered workers in the earthquake area.

But it would be wrong to look at women as mere victims or passive recipients of assistance, added Varbanova. “They are first responders, leaders, change agents. Their experiences, perspectives and talents should be equally and fully drawn upon in the recovery process,” she concluded.

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