After the earthquakes, which happened on 6 February 2023 and affected 10 provinces, we as Mor Çatı Women’s Shelter Foundation visited the earthquake zone in an effort to monitor the mechanisms for combatting violence against women and the situation of women and children who are exposed to or at risk of violence. During our field visit between 20-24 February 2023, we observed the current situation, support mechanisms, and the needs of women and their children in Malatya, Adıyaman, Kahramanmaraş, Gaziantep, Hatay and Adana. We also contacted some public institutions and municipalities that provide services in the region as well as women’s organizations, NGOs and other civic initiatives and heard their experiences.
Current Situation of Public Institutions Responsible for Providing Services to Women who are Exposed to Violence
Institutions that are responsible for combatting violence against women need to have an emergency action plan and immediately implement it so that they can continue their work under disaster conditions. In our visits, we inquired the current status of these institutions and their disaster emergency action plans. Both institutions that are responsible for combating violence against women and their employees have been affected by the earthquake. For this reason, the Ministry of Family and Social Services had to put into implement a plan that would ensure the functioning of the institutions and the well-being of their employees. When we arrived in the region, we learn that some public buildings were relocated to other buildings, as the destruction caused by the earthquake also hit the public buildings. However, residents of those areas or volunteers who went there for support were not aware of these new arrangements of public institutions. We were able to learn about their new location thanks only to our intense efforts. This showed us how difficult it would be for women who need support to reach these institutions.
We observed that, in the region, it has become more difficult to reach mechanisms for combatting violence. We saw that people in charge in the tent areas such as the AFAD (Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency) officer and other public officials, who are possibly the main authorities that a women exposed to male violence should be able to access easily, have no knowledge of how to reach an institution that the woman immediately needs or of where to direct the woman. While some officials, in line with their personal interest and knowledge, voiced some suggestions as to where to direct the woman in the event of violence, some others did not know what to do. In fact, a public official found it strange that we asked questions and stated his conviction that there would be no male violence at times like these. On the other hand, even if a woman who is exposed to violence had access to information about the location of the public institution to get support from, she would have difficulties in reaching the institution without a private vehicle, as the public transport system has not yet been operative. The current situation revealed that there had not been a substantial coordination effort on which needs might arise before, during, and after the disaster and how these needs can be met and that such work was not thought and planned in the time that passed since the earthquake. We observed that all institutions, including the social service institutions that provide services in the earthquake zone, are still very much focused on providing tents, food and covering travel expenses, hence do not sufficiently work on psychosocial and economic needs despite the time that passed.
We, Mor Çatı, learned in our meeting with the Directorate General on the Status of Women right after the earthquake that all women’s shelters in the region were evacuated and that women and children staying in these shelters were relocated to other shelters or in safe buildings in neighboring cities. During our field visit, we contacted these institutions to learn about the current conditions of Violence Prevention and Monitoring Centers (ŞÖNİMs), which the main organ of the Ministry in combatting violence against women, and of other services provided by the Ministry. While some employees of the Ministry-affiliated institutions were already working in the region and affected by the earthquake, some others came there voluntarily or by assignment. We were told that as the Ministry officials were affected by the earthquake, some of them already migrated from the region and some others were preparing to migrate. During our visits, we observed that the employees in these institutions were neither equipped nor supported in accordance with the specific needs that did or will arise after the earthquake. They gave generic answers that are far from making realistic projections about the current situation and were making an effort using their personal knowledge and already existing skills. Our another finding regarding the Ministry’s work pertains to the persistence of the problems that existed prior to the earthquake: the lack of an attitude and approach that is favorable to women, the lack of coordination between the Ministry-affiliate institutions, and the lack of preliminary work on the measures to be taken in case women are exposed to violence.
We learned that some law enforcement personnel working in the region are also the residents of the earthquake-hit cities and hence are affected by the disaster, while some others came from other cities voluntarily or by assignment. During our field visit, we did not encounter a law enforcement officer who is well-equipped in the combat violence against women, who knows the service units or the current situation in the region. Indeed, when we asked in one of the tent areas if the law enforcement officers knew what to do in case of violence, they said that they would report the case to AFAD officials. When we mentioned ŞÖNİMs and Alo 183 helpline, they stated that they did not know about them.
Although what we observed in the region seems peculiar to disaster conditions, the lack of coordination in the combat against violence against women is a problem that we have been seeing for a long time. This problem causes women to bounce from one institution to the other to be able to access their rights, and many institutions that are in charge of combating violence are unaware of theie liabilities. Inter-agency coordination –a bare minimum specified by the Istanbul Convention– was already absent in Turkey, and disaster conditions deteriorated the situation. We see these problems that we observed in the region and listed above as an effect of the existent coordination problems that have been amplified in the disaster conditions.
In the earthquake zone, many municipalities from all over the country were providing services to allocate humanitarian aid and meet basic needs and were highly visible. Although the municipalities we visited in the region started to take steps regarding psychosocial support, we did not encounter any service provided by the municipalities in the combat against violence against women.
In addition, in some provinces and districts, independent organizations that are not a part of the AFAD coordination were not allowed to work, whereas solidarity organized by different institutions, organizations, initiatives, and voluntary efforts in some other places is quite powerful. This solidarity ranges from the delivery of humanitarian aid to the psychosocial needs of women and children, from meeting their educational needs to health-related preventive work. We have seen that very organized and well-coordinated studies are carried out on issues such as up-to-date information about the institutions and the current situation in the city, the general condition of the tent areas and priority needs, empowering, and informing volunteers.
As underlined by various organizations working in the region, there are still severe difficulties in accessing basic needs in the earthquake-hit zone. During our field visit, we noticed that women affected by the earthquake primarily and urgently needed access to humanitarian aid, healthcare, and safety-related services.
Difficulties in accessing clean water and infrastructure problems continue to pose a health risk to the people living in the region. During our visit, water and toilet problems in many tent areas were still being addressed auxiliary methods. We observed that in some areas, the toilet was not safe for women and children as the toilets were located far outside the tent areas and were in unlightened spots. The security risks began to compel some women to postpone their hygiene needs, causing hygiene-related diseases. Residents and volunteers shared with us that they were encountering increasing numbers of vaginal infections, lice and scabies epidemics, and intestinal infections. Problems with electricity infrastructure and the lack of adequate lighting in shelters also pose a threat to the safety of women and children.
Gender division of labor keeps making the lives of women complicated after the earthquake. Women are left alone in queuing for aid distributed after the earthquake and have difficulties in keeping the tent and the clothes clean due to water shortage. The living conditions in the region add to the caregiving burden of women. Women have to go to the toilet that are far from the tent area many times a day not only for their own needs but also for the needs of their children They make an effort to ensure hygiene by washing clothes by hand. We saw that especially young women became obliged to meet the domestic needs of their extended families and that the number of people they give care increased after the earthquake.
We noticed that women who, albeit not officially divorced, are in the process of divorce or separated from their husbands prior to the earthquake were not given tents as it was assumed that they were still in the same family. The difficulty they faced in accessing tent forced them to stay with the violent husband, his family, or their own families, increasing the risk of women being exposed to violence. Besides, single women and women who do not want to live with their families even if their family is alive have difficulty in accessing tents or alternative safe accommodation services. The fact that the tents are delivered on the basis of family unit registered in the official records prevents women, who have built or want to build an independent like and who are exposed to domestic violence, from getting away from the violent environment; in fact, it compels them to stay there. We saw that women who have to stay in the same tent with their extended family struggle with psychological difficulties. People who provide support to women in the region shared with us that young women, who had to live under these conditions, experience an intense state of introversion. Moreover, we noted that no precautions were taken against the potential risks of sexual violence both within and outside the family in tent cities or scattered settlements.
We observed that there is not sufficient organization to protect children from the risk of violence, to determine the situation they are exposed, and to direct them to relevant support mechanisms. While the Ministry of National Education (MEB) does reading activities with children of different age groups, an expansive education activity has yet to be organized. Although there were educational and psychosocial support activities carried out by NGOs and other initiatives working on children’s rights based in the region, not all children in the region could access these supports. The lack of a support system that can provide adolescents with their specific needs and the perception of the “child” limited to a certain age are other problems that we have pointed out. Besides the age group, legal status of children (whether they have citizenship or not) also affects their access to services. We saw that there were children who, despite meeting the conditions, were not allowed in the MEB tent on the grounds that they were Syrian, and the teacher in charge rejected the insistent demands of the children only because they were Syrians saying, “other teachers will be coming for you, you cannot come here”. Our observations reveal that the most important drawback in the prevention and determination of violence lies in the fact that most of the children are excluded from the service networks.
As in all other humanitarian aid crises, women, children, groups with special needs, and communities that face discrimination are most affected by all kinds of difficulties in disasters and post-disaster conditions. Male violence continues after the earthquake, and women and children who are exposed to violence need access to necessary services even more urgently than before. Based on our experience in combating male violence and the knowledge we gained after our visit to the earthquake region, we, Mor Çatı, underline that the fight against violence requires services that cannot be postponed and must be provided urgently and point to the steps that the state should immediately take.
- Humanitarian aid, healthcare and safety needs of the people living in the region should be urgently provided, and gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, disability, citizenship status, and all kinds of discrimination they are exposed to should be taken into consideration.
- Tent areas should be arranged immediately in conformity with the safety needs of women and children.
- Tent areas should be organized in a way to enable people to maintain their daily practices, and access to resources such as laundry, drinking water, toilets and showers, and electricity should be provided.
- The current situation of the institutions in the region working for combatting violence against women should be evaluated, ŞÖNİMs, women’s shelters, relevant law enforcement units, and family courts should, at the very least, be as accessible as they were before the earthquake.
- All officials, including those in tent areas and other places where women affected by the earthquake live, should be informed about and equipped with procedures regarding the services to be provided to women and children who are exposed to violence, the protocols to be followed, and these officials should be constantly updated according to the changing situations.
- All kinds of risks regarding possible violence against women and child abuse should be identified and preventive work against these risks should be immediately initiated.
- A monitoring study should be carried out in order to determine the needs of all women in the earthquake zone who received support from the relevant units due to the violence they were exposed to, and women who have issued a protection and confidentiality orders within the scope of Law no. 6284 should be provided with counseling so that they can stay safe in this process.
- Units from which people living the region can get information about sexual health should be established, measures against STDs as well as contraceptive methods should be provided free of charge, and women who want to terminate their pregnancy should be immediately referred to the hospital.
- It should be kept in mind that the personnel working in the existing units in the region were also affected by the earthquake and that all of the humanitarian aid, healthcare, security and psychosocial needs apply to these people as well. The well-being of the said personnel should be observed, new assignments and duty rotations should be allowed when necessary.
- Nurseries and playgrounds for children should be created in tent areas, public officials who are experts in pedagogy and child development should be appointed in those areas, and the work should be carried out in accordance with secular and scientific methods and observe pedagogical development of children.
- All children should be provided with access to education and psychosocial support without any discrimination.
- Women and children should be provided support in their native language. When it is not possible, interpreter support should be offered.
- Given that the earthquake caused massive internal migration, a monitoring and needs-assessment study should be carried to determine the situation of women not only in the earthquake zone but also in the regions that they migrated, and an emergency action plan to combat violence against women should be devised and put into practice not just in the earthquake-hit areas, but all over Turkey.