In post-earthquake Van, women struggle to adjust to life in container housing
Many women in post-earthquake Van feel grateful for the container housing provided by the government, but post-traumatic symptoms and relocation have dramatically altered their lives.
By Emiko Jozuka for SES Türkiye in Van -- 03/05/12
Tulay Ersu leaves a group of women to their discussion and turns to smile at a passing neighbour. To her left, a grandmother hobbles past while children scamper about a makeshift fortress made from dried mud.
Women sit outside their container housing unit in the Kevanli housing compound in Van. [Emiko Jozuka]
Children play on drainage pipes placed outside of a temporary housing unit where they live in Van. [Emiko Jozuka]
Women have struggled to adjust to performing domestic house work and family care in temporary housing units. [Emiko Jozuka]
To Ersu's right stretches row-upon-row of temporary housing units, each one indistinguishable from the next.
This is Kevanli -- one of 25 temporary housing compounds erected in Van -- where a massive 7.2-magnitude and subsequent 5.6-magnitude earthquake on October 23rd and November 9th left tens of thousands homeless and altered the lives of the region's residents.
Ersu is one of many women who still suffer from the traumatic after-effects of the earthquake, as repeated aftershocks carry with them a surge of memories mingled with fear.
"Every time there's an aftershock, I run out of the container with my children. I can’t help it. I’m still scared. The earthquake really affected me psychologically," Ersu told SES Türkiye.
The exact number of women suffering from post-traumatic symptoms is unknown and on-site support for them remains limited.
According to Ali Yaka, a clinical psychologist at Kirsehir State Hospital, some women may be suffering from "double trauma."
"Before the earthquake, women were living in their own homes, but when the earthquake struck, some of them witnessed their family members die or become injured. This was the first trauma for them. The second trauma is caused by having to adjust to two changes of location -- the first being the tent, and the second the container," Yaka told SES Türkiye.
The struggle for equality and women's rights is active across Turkey, with the patriarchal eastern region being no exception to the rule. However, women often remain restricted to the domestic sphere, which has been drastically changed since the earthquake.
"Women have an inferior status to men here, and they bore the full brunt of the earthquake," explained Sacide Akkaya, Van representative from the women's organisation KAMER.
The earthquakes forced women in Van to trade homes for tents. They continued looking after their families, in some cases over a dozen members, in winter conditions, where a lack of heating and running water was the norm.
"After the earthquake, women were still left to carry out household chores. But the loss of their homes meant that they couldn't prepare food or do the washing, and they and their families went without bathing for up to a month," Akkaya explained.
The eventual transition from tents to temporary housing units poses another challenge for women. Long-standing bonds between neighbours were severed when families were randomly allocated containers alongside people they didn't know, often in locations far from their original homes.
According to Ceyhan Timur, a sociologist at the Van Municipality Women's Research Centre (VAKASUM), it is difficult for women to forge relationships and supportive networks within the temporary housing sites.
"It's not so likely that women will establish long-standing relationships with one another in these temporary housing sites. At the end of the day, people with different ideas, backgrounds and beliefs, are all obliged to live side by side. Such conditions may give rise to conflict between people," explained Timur.
"Many women emphasise the lack of privacy while others say they are harassed verbally and feel threatened by the way men look at them," she told SES Türkiye.
Back in Kevanli, Ersu feels secure within her temporary housing compound and is thankful for the roof above her head. With the police presence, she and other residents feel protected from thieves and intruders.
Yet with her home gone and no source of income, she is uncertain about the future.
"I have three children, and my husband has been sentenced to a 10-year prison sentence. There’s no one to support me and I have no money with which to buy food. I’ve been trying to find a job as a cleaner, but most people are unemployed in Van," said Ersu.
Ersu's situation is not uncommon in Kevanli, where residents are equally poor and women lack the education that could give them access to employment opportunities.
In Ersu's old district, her neighbours provided her with food and a tent when her house collapsed. But now, Ersu laments that if her new neighbours could assist her in any way, they would, yet their own financial circumstances prevent them from doing so.