International Women's Day: An Earthquake Jolted Her Into Action

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Ms Selma Demirelli started Turkey's first women’s housing cooperative to empower women as property owners.CREDIT: COURTESY OF THE SABANCI FOUNDATIONMs Selma Demirelli started Turkey's first women’s housing cooperative to empower women as property owners.CREDIT: COURTESY OF THE SABANCI FOUNDATION

ANKARA: It was the 45 seconds that altered the lives of many.

In the early hours of Aug 17, 1999, an earthquake struck Turkey’s Marmara region, killing tens of thousands of people, including Ms Selma Demirelli’s husband.

Like the millions of other survivors, her life would never be the same. After getting through the initial shock, Ms Demirelli found salvation in helping others, signing up to work as a field coordinator for a non-governmental organisation, the Foundation for the Support of Women’s Work.

She soon witnessed the many problems survivors endured; she also learned that traumas caused by natural disasters often affect women, children and the handicapped more than others.

She was lucky to have been an exception.

A few days after her husband’s funeral, his relatives asked her for the deed to her house, which was flattened by the earthquake. Turkey has equal rights of inheritance, but there are still certain patriarchal legal practices that work against women.

A widow without a child, for instance, becomes obliged to share her husband’s property with his relatives. And in marriages where the husband is the only income provider, the property is registered under the name of the husband.

As it turned out, Ms Demirelli was legally entitled to keep her house, but the realisation that not everyone was so lucky prompted her to set up the country’s first women’s housing cooperative to empower women as property owners.

“The amount of money we started with was so small that when I took it to the bank, the manager made fun of me,” she recounted. “‘Why are you wasting your time?’ he said. ‘You are a beautiful woman, find a man and remarry.’”

His comment left her in tears, but it also strengthened her resolve. She made countless trips to the capital city of Ankara to secure the allotment of land, and enlisted NGOs and institutions, such as Istanbul Technical University, to help with things like housing design.

Meanwhile, she became involved in another housing project.

When a local charity group made up of businessmen offered to provide a year-long supply of food to earthquake survivors, she explained to them that it would be better to contribute to a more long-term solution: She convinced them to build houses for 200 families.

It was typical of Ms Demirelli, who has become known for her efforts to offer help in a sustainable manner. Her work in camps built for earthquake survivors, for example, involved providing training for women.

But she soon realised that many of them were not able to participate because there was no one to look after their children.

That prompted her to set up the Water Lily Women’s Cooperative. Once again, she made numerous trips to the capital to secure the allotment of space for a centre to provide day care for children up to the age of six.

It took years of persistent efforts - national and local government bureaucracies hoped to wear her down, but the opposite happened. When they realised she would not give up, they gave up. She got the land for the centre, edging out rival groups who wanted it for a commercial project or petrol station.

Today, the activities of the Water Lily Women’s Cooperative are not limited to childcare. Mothers use the free time they now have to attend training programmes - in finance, business development and entrepreneurship - that enable them to join the workforce.

Most recently, Ms Demirelli turned her focus to projects to end violence against women, which has reached alarming levels in Turkey. In addition to raising awareness, she is seeking new approaches to combat this problem.

“I’m not against shelters where women who are victims of violence can seek refuge,” she said. “But at the end of the day, it deprives them of their freedom. Why should women have to leave their homes? We also need to address the men who use violence against women.”

 

- Straits Times