By Barçin Yinanç, Hürriyet Daily News
It took only 45 seconds. In the early hours of August 17, 1999, an earthquake struck Turkey’s Marmara region, killing tens of thousands of people, including Selma Demirelli’s husband. Like the millions of other survivors, her life would never be the same.
After getting through the initial shock, Demirelli found salvation in helping others, signing up to work as a field coordinator for an NGO, the Foundation for the Support of Women’s Work. She soon witnessed the many and varied problems earthquake survivors endure; she also learned that while traumas caused by natural disasters are in theory gender neutral, they 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, Demirelli was legally entitled to keep her house, but the realization that not everyone was so lucky prompted her to found 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 real estate, then enlisted NGOs and institutions such as Istanbul Technical University to help with aspects such as housing design.
Meanwhile, she became involved in another housing project. When a local charity group composed of businessmen offered to provide a yearlong supply of food to earthquake survivors, she explained that it would be better to help with a more long-term solution: She convinced them to construct houses for 200 families instead.
It was typical of Demirelli, who has become known for her efforts to make assistance sustainable. Her work in camps built for earthquake survivors, for example, involved gathering women to talk and to provide them training. Soon however she realized that many of them were not able to participate because there was no place to leave their children.
That prompted her to found the Water Lily Women’s Cooperative—once again, she made numerous trips to the capital to secure the allotment of a real estate for a center 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 realized she would not give up, they gave up. She got the real estate for the center, beating out rival groups who wanted it for a commercial project or gas 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 programs—in finance, business development, entrepreneurship—that enable them to join the work force.
Most recently, Demirelli has 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.”
That 1999 earthquake may have destroyed much of Demirelli’s world, but it did not destroy her. Instead, she used that tragedy as a springboard to help build better lives for so many others.
Photo: Selma Demirelli with children in the housing cooperative in the northern city of Duzce in Turkey.
Credit: Courtesy of the Sabancı Foundation