With the deaths of 18 family members and dozens of friends, Nesrin Burç Deli felt defeated by the February earthquakes that devastated parts of Turkey and Syria. The collapse of her clothing store, the source of her livelihood for over two decades, dimmed in comparison to the loss of her loved ones. 

“We lost on all fronts. We lost people, goods, our lives, our city,” says Burç Deli, who lives in Antakya, in southern Turkey’s Hatay province.

Yet just four days after the first quake, when she arrived at the premises of the Defne Women’s Cooperative for agricultural producers where she is a volunteer director, Burç Deli was stunned to find that her colleagues had already rushed over to clean up. In fact, they already had a batch of their famous orange slices in the oven. 

“Sister Atıla [a colleague] ran up to me shouting, ‘The boss is alive! The boss is alive!’ There were five or six women there, they all ran up to me and said, ‘Thank goodness you’re well, you’re alive,’” she said. 

While the women of the cooperative stay in close contact on a daily basis under normal circumstances, Burç Deli hadn’t been able to reach her fellow cooperative members for days, since the earthquake knocked out local phone lines. But the way her colleagues pitched in was vindication of what she’d been trying to teach them for years: “There are no bosses in cooperatives – everyone’s equal.”

Women tend to be disproportionately affected by natural disasters. They generally suffer higher mortality rates than men and a 2018 report by the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) identified a gender gap in access to healthcare, food, water, education and information in such circumstances. 

A report by the Women for Equality Platform (EŞİK) following the earthquakes noted that when a disaster strikes at night, women are often more worried about changing out of their sleeping clothes than evacuating as quickly as possible. One EŞİK volunteer who took part in recovery efforts said that rescuers often found women’s bodies in their children’s bedrooms, trapped as they ran in to save them.

Yet for members of the Defne Women’s Cooperative, February’s earthquake provided an opportunity to find power in solidarity, Burç Deli told Inside Turkey. 

“Unfortunately, one bad experience carries more weight than a thousand recommendations. It’s heart-breaking but [the earthquakes] showed these women the power in working together and in standing together; and this is truly how they healed,” she said.

The destruction from the earthquakes was particularly disheartening for the Defne Women’s Cooperative, as the business had just paid off all its debts for the first time and had entered the new year with stocks full, said Burç Deli.

She described the moment when she saw the cooperative’s premises, located in a secluded area in rural Hatay.

 “I looked around, but everything was rubble. There was nothing left. But then I said the same thing I’ve been saying for years: ‘Production will heal us’,” she said.

In nearby Kahramanmaras province, the epicentre of the earthquakes, the UN’s Development Programme (UNDP) has chosen to give priority to women in a recent grants scheme. According to the UNDP’s resident representative for Turkey, Louisa Vinton, this was prompted by the “disproportionate obstacles” that women faced even before the disaster. 

“In [Turkey], as in many countries, women are badly underrepresented in the labour market and the business world,” she told Inside Turkey. 

“One of the main reasons for this gender disparity is the burden of unpaid care work that women shoulder in the home,” she said, adding that the earthquakes aggravated this workload by disrupting established care routines. 

Women-led businesses suffered massive losses, with UNDP data showing that, after the earthquakes, the number of female-owned businesses under the local chamber of commerce shrank by 90% in Hatay’s Antakya district alone – from 450 to 45.

The Defne Women’s Cooperative, which helps connect agricultural producers with customers, is one of many grassroots organisations that have stepped in to fill the gap. The business has expanded operations to make sure they supply as many goods as possible to earthquake-affected areas, but also to provide financial support to as many female producers as possible. 

For Vinton, the grassroots response shows “the vital role that can be played by community-based and volunteer organisations, which have the local knowledge and networks needed to mobilise swiftly in emergencies”.

Burç Deli pointed out that nine months on from the disaster, the cooperative has traded goods from 1,500 women farmers and producers. 

“There were a lot of people who came from Istanbul and bought large amounts of goods from us. They would buy whatever we could supply from the villages: olives, oil, any food at all. Then we would pack those up and they would be distributed to quake survivors in Defne Women’s Cooperative boxes,” Burç Deli explained.

She added that the cooperative’s work has contributed to the local economy by supplying survivors in Hatay with local goods and creating business for local vendors. Any cash donations they receive are passed on to the local soup kitchen.

Burç Deli believes that their activities have helped many local women maintain their independence. “If it wasn’t for our cooperative, a lot of women like me who lost their place of work would be living in temporary camps, getting harassed by random men,” she said. 

The UNDP will continue to prioritise female-owned businesses in their recovery efforts, with the awareness that running a business is “not just about securing an income,” Vinton said. 

“We hope the grants will serve as a catalyst for a wider recovery,” she added. “Employment of all kinds is crucial to establishing the financial independence that can help women escape situations in which they run the risk of falling victim to violence and abuse.”

Burç Deli said that the disaster made her aware of the need for better training in crisis management. 

“But you know what else I realised?” she added. “It turns out women have been managing crises at home their whole lives, so we were better at managing this crisis too.