Earthquakes are an act of nature, but disasters are not. Disasters are political. They are usually analyzed as a consequence of underdevelopment and linked to issues of democracy, regime type, institutional capacity, and corruption. But adopting a development approach without taking gender into consideration hurts our understanding of disasters and hinders our policy recommendations. Gender-blind development policies leave women and girls behind and exacerbate their vulnerabilities before, during, and after disasters, as was made clear by the Feb. 6, 2023 earthquake that struck southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria. By viewing disasters as gendered development problems, we can better understand the differential impact the Feb. 6 earthquake had on women and girls in Turkey and make more impactful policy recommendations.
Six months on: Women and girls in a post-disaster environment
More than six months on from the Feb. 6 earthquake, independent observers and women's non-governmental organizations (NGOs) report that women’s and girls’ needs, including urgent ones, have hardly been met. Women and girls still face a disproportionate burden of care work, emotional stress, poverty, health problems, and most importantly, violence. If we look at the region from women’s perspective, we can identify several major concerns.
Care work in a post-disaster context: Survival by women and girls
In post-disaster settings, the burden of care work intensifies for women and girls as they bear primary responsibility for restoring “normalcy” in the absence of social protection and health care services. Due to gender roles, they dedicate their time to cooking, cleaning, washing, and caring for children, the elderly, or disabled family members. According to UNICEF, as of March 2023, in Turkey alone there were 1.9 million people living in temporary shelters struggling to access basic services like water, sanitation, and medical care, and 2.5 million children were in need of humanitarian assistance.
As a recent report on the aftermath of the Feb. 6 earthquake by Turkish NGO Equality for Women (EŞİK) Platform highlights, women have had to assume the care responsibilities and share their tents with children while men reside in separate tents, often using smoking as an excuse. In other words, men tend to create a gendered division of living spaces rather than assuming their care responsibilities, as expected in patriarchal societies.
Women who are trapped in care work often struggle to find the time to seek social security or social aid. In many cases, patriarchal states like Turkey tend to distribute financial or material aid to men, following the notion that the man is the head of the household. This gendered distribution of resources means female-headed households are often not granted social or financial aid and thus suffer from poverty.
EŞİK Platform’s report reveals that single women, divorced women, and women who have experienced violence and wish to live separately from their husbands did not receive their own tents after the Feb. 6 quake, as they were allocated to “families” instead. Prioritizing the notion of “family” over women’s individual needs as citizens put their lives at risk. In one distressing example a divorced woman who had to share her tent with her ex-husband was assaulted with boiling water while she slept.
Poverty: Women and girls eat less in post-disaster settings
Another gendered impact of disasters is that women often limit their food consumption to ensure others are fed, resulting in health problems due to poor diet. In patriarchal societies, girls often receive less and lower-quality food as boys are given priority to carry on the family line. A recent report from the earthquake region notes that women there “prefer” to drink less water and eat less so they don’t have to go to the toilet as often, also underscoring their security concerns. According to the same report, even if they do want to eat, in some tent camps only two meals a day are provided.
Additionally, increased poverty puts girls’ schooling at risk, as families may view them as a burden and force them into early marriages — an ongoing problem in Turkey. UNICEF warns that children affected by the earthquake are at risk of falling into poverty or being forced to work or marry. Furthermore, girls are often expected to assist with care work or act as surrogate “mothers,” hindering their access to education, depriving them of opportunities to acquire life skills, and trapping them in a cycle of poverty.
Women’s health is ignored: “Silenced” needs
While women in disaster settings have the same biological needs related to menstruation, pregnancy, lactation, and childbirth, their requirements for clean, safe, and separate bathrooms, privacy, and security are usually disregarded in such environments. The lack of hygiene in shared facilities poses risks for their reproductive health and increases the likelihood of infections. As a result of poor eating and poor hygiene conditions, women experience gendered health problems, including common fungal infections, cystitis, or constipation. Menstrual irregularity is also common in post-disaster settings, given taboos around menstruation and related needs, which are widely ignored by the patriarchal state.
According to the U.N. Population Fund, in Turkey alone, 130,000 pregnant women were affected by the earthquake and had to give birth in dire conditions. Six months on, women still face serious problems finding public hospitals for pregnancy care and to give birth. Turkey’s gender-blind approach to disaster management overlooks the importance of providing essential items like menstruation kits, birth control pills, underwear, or lactation equipment. Women often feel unable to express their needs to male disaster management staff due to patriarchal teachings, and Turkey has a significant shortfall of female disaster workers: only 32% of permanent national, 34.8% of temporary national, and 16% of permanent provincial workers with the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD) are female.
Violence and discrimination continue in the post-earthquake environment
Turkey’s current gender-blind approach fails to acknowledge the heightened risk of violence faced by women and girls. Threats to women’s security usually come from the men in their families. Women are more vulnerable to harassment, domestic violence, and sexual assault in tents or temporary shelters. Tent or container camps lack proper lighting and have insecure toilets and bathrooms, posing significant risks for women. These facilities do not offer privacy, and women do not feel safe for themselves or their children. Speaking to the Turkish press, Emel Özkılsız, a female survivor of the Feb. 6 earthquake, said that she feared that someone could unzip her tent and come in while she and her daughters were sleeping, leading her to stay awake at night to protect them.
At the same time, women and girls face domestic violence as men hold them responsible for compromising their privacy and damaging their families’ “honor.” They are confined to tents and tasked with childcare, often prohibited from being in communal areas like those where food is distributed. Those who defy their husbands’ and fathers’ dictates risk domestic violence. As a report from the Turkish NGO Purple Roof (Mor Çatı) Women’s Shelter Foundation notes, the absence of security personnel and law enforcement to protect women and girls further exacerbates the risk of assault. Moreover, women are also subjected to “silenced and unspoken” sexual violence by their partners, violating their rights and risking unwanted pregnancies.
Similarly, LGBTQI+ people and Syrian refugee women and girls also experience violence in their container camps, further compounded by discrimination. Anti-LGBTQI+ and anti-migrant rhetoric hinder them from seeking assistance, accessing facilities and services, and enjoying their fundamental human rights in post-disaster settings.
Recommendations for building back better
Disasters are a gendered development governance problem. It is not enough to simply include women and girls as an add-on item on the disaster management agenda. More must be done to recognize their needs, concerns, interests, vulnerabilities, agency, and capacities.
Adopt a new framework for action: Turkey needs a holistic, gender-sensitive, and rights-based disaster management framework. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women’s General Recommendation No. 37 provides a better alternative to the gender-blind Sendai Framework that Turkey uses for disaster management. This convention proposes that states’ policies should be guided by the principles of substantive equality, non-discrimination, participation, empowerment, accountability, and access to justice.
Build back better democratically with women’s participation: For these principles to be applied in Turkey, there is an urgent need for a democratic governance model in which women from every walk of life participate in the decision-making process regarding issues in the disaster region. A disaster management strategy without democracy cannot address any of society's problems, let alone those of women and other silenced groups. There is an urgent need for local women’s concerns to be heard and addressed. An official conference should be convened and periodic meetings held with women and women’s NGOs working in the region.
Respect women’s rights by applying the Istanbul Convention and Law 6284: Violence against women in the region remains a dire problem. The Turkish government must make it clear that women’s lives matter and that violence will not be tolerated. To underscore the importance of women’s security, it should state its commitment to the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty on domestic violence against women, and strictly apply Law 6284 for the protection of women against domestic violence in the disaster region.
Care for women by providing public care services and employment: Women suffer disproportionately from poverty due to the increased burden of care work in disaster conditions. Rather than women helping the state by assuming its welfare responsibilities, the Turkish government should provide better care units for babies, children, the elderly, and the disabled. It should create employment conditions for women so that they can break the cycle of poverty. Even though it is the main responsibility of the Turkish government to provide stronger and better social protection for women and those they care for, the international community’s financial support for women’s NGOs is crucial as well.
Encourage women’s agency by expanding on proven examples: Women’s agency should be supported. Women need financial assistance to build back better. The agency of women in helping women and girls in the disaster region through women’s NGOs showed how important it is to have women as actors in disaster management. Purple Campus (Mor Yerleşke), a project carried out by the Federation of Women’s Associations of Turkey, sets a great example of how women’s solidarity and agency can contribute to women’s welfare. The project aims to reduce women’s care work by providing health services and psychological support. More importantly, it is designed to create a safe zone for women free from violence and insecurity in the earthquake-affected provinces. Based on a post-disaster needs assessment carried out by the Turkish government in conjunction with the U.N. Development Program and other international agencies, the total cost of damages and losses from the earthquake in Turkey is estimated at $103.6 billion, and women need funding to help rebuild their lives and communities.
Respect children’s rights by focusing on girls’ education: In disaster settings, patriarchal societies like Turkey emphasize the “family” over individuals and allocate resources to men as “the head of the family.” This approach not only violates women’s rights as citizens but also those of children. Families can be a source of insecurity for children and their rights should be protected too. Girls are often the most disadvantaged group as they are fed less, forced to marry, or kept out of school to provide care and help with the washing, cooking, and cleaning, impairing their fundamental right to education. For these reasons, a children’s rights-based approach to disaster management should pay special attention to girls’ rights, security, needs, and concerns. Those families who force their daughters to marry or/and prevent them from seeking education should be punished as authorized by Turkish laws. The Turkish government, civil society, and international actors should prioritize preventing early marriage and keeping girls in school. There is an urgent need for new schools, school supplies, and teachers as well. To bridge the digital gender gap, girls should be provided digital tools and taught relevant skills, including through e-learning and tutorials at digital campuses.
Bridge the digital gender gap by investing in women’s and girls’ recovery through technology: The digital gender gap needs special attention in disaster governance. Women and girls globally are at a disadvantage when it comes to adoption and use of technology compared to men and boys, and this is especially true in patriarchal societies. The earthquake zone is one of the most conservative and patriarchal parts of Turkey. Women not only use digital tools to communicate in disasters but also use smartphone apps like KADES to report violence and call for help. The digitization of economies requires women and girls to build their digital literacy and skills and have access to smartphones, computers, or tablets. Unfortunately, the digital gender gap in the region is underrecognized, but addressing it has huge potential to help women’s economic, political, and social recovery. The government, international actors, and technology companies should donate equipment and teach digital skills to make a difference in women’s and girls' lives.
Ensure women’s right to health by breaking taboos and providing facilities: Six months on, building wreckage and asbestos dust still pose environmental and public health problems. Inadequate housing, power cuts, lack of access to food and clean water, and pests and insects threaten the everyday lives of people in the region. Because of the gendered division of labor and care work, the burden falls disproportionately on the shoulders of women and there is an urgent need to address these problems. The recent heatwave, poverty, and inflation have all made conditions even worse. The Turkish government and municipalities need to solve the environmental and infrastructural problems. There is a need for container camps in the short run as well as power sources to ensure decent living conditions with heating and cooling units. Moreover, free food and water banks should be established to make supplies of both accessible. The number of mobile washing centers should be increased, and safe and clean portable toilets should be set up. The Turkish government should forgo pink-taxing women’s hygiene products, and they should have easy access to free birth control and menstrual products in public spaces. Disabled women’s needs should be taken into account in providing health services. Most importantly, women should be asked periodically about what they need and their demands should be met. Women are the ones who try to care for others and maintain normalcy in times of distress. For this reason, their physical, biological, and psychological needs should be prioritized to ensure a better reconstruction process.
Invest in gender, disaster, and development studies: Since the repercussions of the earthquake will last for generations, the number of gender studies departments in Turkey should be increased. Gender studies centers specializing in disasters should be established, funded, and supported. International agencies should cooperate with universities, research centers, and academics working on gender, disasters, and development to build better back in the future for women, children, and all.
Dr. Burcu Sarı Karademir teaches in the Department of International Relations and Political Science at TED University, Ankara, Turkey. She volunteers for TEDU Gender Studies.
Photo by Boris Roessler/picture alliance via Getty Images
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