Women volunteers play a life-saving role in earthquake response

Female TOG volunteers coordinate operations at a storage unit in Hatay. Photo: courtesy of TOG

When an earthquake hit southeastern Türkiye on February 6, the Community Volunteers Foundation immediately deployed its volunteers to storage units in the earthquake zone to classify, store and distribute emergency supplies to the survivors. Women volunteers have played a life-saving role in the response by ensuring that women and girls receive the help and support they need.

Volunteers play an important role in disaster and emergency response, supporting the immediate needs of survivors, assisting public agencies in providing services, and assisting survivors who need care and support. After an earthquake hit 11 provinces in southeastern Türkiye on the 6thth in February, thousands of volunteers were deployed in disaster areas to support public institutions and assist survivors who lost their homes and loved ones in a devastating earthquake.

The Community Volunteers Foundation (TOG, for its Turkish acronym), one of UN Women’s civil society partners, has been working tirelessly with its more than 800 volunteers, half of them women, on the ground over the last month.

Right after the earthquake, communities, national and local agencies, civil society organizations and private companies from all over the country started sending relief packages, blankets and food items to the earthquake zone. The huge amount of aid requires the support of volunteers.

Coming from all over the country, TOG volunteers, including earthquake victims, were here to help. In coordination with public authorities, they have been sorting, storing and shipping these items to survivors, including women and girls from day one.

“The range of humanitarian supplies has changed every day. One day, a truckload of hygiene products and pads arrived; another day no these items. So, our work is very important as a focus person in a storage unit to sort, pack and deliver the urgent needs of the survivors,” said Rana Kara, 27, from Istanbul, who is a training expert at TOG.

After working in one of the storage units in Hatay, Kara explains how the system works: “We classify and store goods, prepare relief packages according to the list of requirements distributed by the local authorities in the area and send them to the tent settlements.”

Zilan Aydın, 23, has been a TOG volunteer for the last five years. He was in his hometown of Antalya when the earthquake hit and shortly thereafter he was deployed to the area. He was assigned to a storage unit in Hatay to coordinate relief and organize operations: “People are coming to the storage unit to pick up the things they need. Often, men would come and get these items for their families. Because of gender stereotypes and traditional values, sometimes men don’t know how to ask for pads, or they ask if their wife and daughter use the same type of pads. So, we decided to put pads and diapers in all the relief boxes we set up for families.”

Aydın, who also studied dentistry, shared his experience and observations in the field: “As a health professional, I see many pregnant women say that they have bleeding, and they have a risk of miscarriage. I have also witnessed that women tend to put their children’s needs first; they want to take diapers and baby formula and put their needs second.”

Dilay Duman, 34, has been a TOG volunteer for more than 15 years. He currently works for a civil society organization in Mersin, a city in southern Türkiye. Right after the earthquake, he was sent to his hometown Hatay as a volunteer. She says it can be very challenging to volunteer in times of disaster: “During a disaster, you need to organize more quickly, be able to make decisions in a changing environment, and be more careful when taking initiative. As volunteers, we need to acknowledge the vulnerability of people, including women, and we need to be supportive in every way.”

Hazal Günel, Gender Equality Program Specialist at TOG, said that women volunteers play a life-saving role in earthquake response: “Women volunteers can ensure that the different needs and priorities of women and girls are met. Their presence provides a gender lens at all levels of humanitarian response. This is why we specifically mobilized female volunteers. We believe that female volunteers make a valuable contribution to help women who are experiencing difficulties in the earthquake zone.”

Günel said that their volunteers were assigned to seven different storage units in Hatay, Adıyaman and Kahramanmaraş, the cities most affected by the earthquake. “Volunteers are deployed to work in the field for a maximum of 5 days due to their welfare and the risk of secondary trauma. Their mental and physical health is very important for the continuation of volunteer work in the field,” he explained.

The Community Volunteers Foundation (TOG) works with youth and encourages them to participate in social responsibility projects as volunteers. The foundation is a partner organization of UN Women and implements a training program for volunteers in “Strong Civic Spaces for Gender Equality”, which is funded by the European Union.

If you would like to support the efforts of UN Women in the earthquake zones of Türkiye and Syria and help women, girls and their families who are in dire need, please donate here.

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