“It is heartbreaking that the special needs of women and girls are not usually met or taken into account in disaster situations,” says Dilan Duman, a 34 year-old volunteer with working experience in emergency situations. She is one of the volunteers of the civil society organisation Community Volunteers Foundation, which deployed its teams on the ground after the earthquakes that hit 11 provinces in Türkiye on February 6th. Duman explains how it feels to be a volunteer after a devastating earthquake and shares her observations on the ground.
“At 4:17 AM I felt the shaking of an earthquake in Mersin, where I currently live. The shaking was so hard. In a few minutes, I learned that there were massive earthquakes in my hometown Hatay, a city in southeastern Türkiye. My brother, my mother, and my friends were there. I couldn’t reach them for hours. It was the longest night of my life.
In the morning, I took the road to Hatay to check on my family and friends. When I got to the city, I saw things were not even close to what I remembered. The places where I grew up and spent my childhood were completely destroyed. I couldn’t even recognise the streets or find the buildings where my friends and their families lived. My family was safe, but I kept looking for my loved ones for two days, not knowing what to do or how to help, wandering around collapsed buildings and debris. It was so sad.
I am an experienced volunteer working in emergency situations such as earthquakes and forest fires. I joined the Community Volunteers Foundation (TOG, for its initials in Turkish) as a volunteer in 2008. Since then, I have been working for the organisation as a volunteer in addition to my regular job as an expert in a civil society organisation in Mersin.
Natural disasters are chaotic, and volunteering is compelling. You need to reach the people in need and rapidly take the right decisions in a challenging environment. You need to work voluntarily without any expectations, and support teams of experts doing search and rescue. You sleep on the floor; you share a pack of biscuits with 10 other people, and you don’t take a bath for a week. You work in stiff conditions, however, supporting people, particularly women and girls, together with your colleagues is priceless.
After the earthquakes hit southeastern Türkiye, I started working at a storage unit in Hatay, where we were packing and delivering essential materials to people in need. However, men are too embarrassed to ask for sanitary pads or underwear for their wives, mothers, or daughters. One day, a male survivor said he wanted ‘the thing that women use.’ We understood that he was asking for sanitary pads.
Following this incident, we realised the need to prepare package contents to address the special needs of every single family. We began to ask the number of women and girls and their ages to figure out if they are in the menstruation cycle. We tried to learn if there were any small children in the family so that we could provide diapers and baby formula. However, we knew that some women were not able to share some of their private issues or needs with their partners. In other cases, mothers didn’t tell their sons about their issues with urinary incontinence. For this reason, it is very important for women volunteers to go to the field, reach out to women and learn their needs firsthand.
I was one of the volunteers working on the ground talking to women survivors. I saw that women, girls, breastfeeding mothers, and children need separate privacy areas at the tent settlements. They need places to take care of themselves, breastfeed their babies, change their clothes, and manage their menstrual hygiene safely.
The special needs of women and girls should be taken into account and met during disasters. Each woman and girl have different needs. They try to support their families and at the same time take care of themselves. They face different difficulties due to existing gender and cultural norms, which make their lives even harder. We need to empower women and girls by supporting them, addressing their immediate needs, and helping them to raise their voices.
As volunteers, we are and will always be there to support women, girls, and their families, no matter the circumstances.”
The Community Volunteers Foundation (TOG) is a partner organisation of UN Women Türkiye, working to raise awareness of gender equality among young people and support them as change leaders to implement their own gender equality projects, within the “Strong Civic Space for Gender Equality”, funded by the European Union.
If you would like to support UN Women’s efforts in the earthquake zone in Türkiye and Syria and help women, girls and their families who are in urgent need, please donate here.
Originally published on UN Women’s regional site for Europe and Central Asia