The Risks to Girls from Violence and Exploitation Following the Earthquake in Turkey and Syria
Sian Norris speaks to aid experts about how girls are disproportionately impacted by disasters, including the recent earthquake which has killed and displaced thousands
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Girls are at specific risk of violence and exploitation in the aftermath of an earthquake that devastated areas of Turkey and Syria earlier this month, aid agencies have warned.
While children and adults of both sexes are at risk in the aftermath of the horrific earthquake which has now killed more than 30,000 people, girls face particular vulnerabilities, including an enhanced risk of rape and other forms of gender-based violence, as well as health concerns.
“If you do not have a safe space, you are exposed to people who may wish to cause you harm or may wish to take advantage of your vulnerability,” Sam Hewett, regional director at the charity ShelterBox, told Byline Times.
“There is research to show that during times of heightened stress, people are more likely to commit gender based violence,” he said. “You have this combination of people who are more vulnerable because they’ve lost their place of safety. Then there are those who – because there’s heightened stress – are going to be more likely to perpetrate harm against vulnerable people.”
ShelterBox provides emergency response in cases of disaster and conflict, including by providing tarpaulins, hygiene aids, cooking essentials, and shelter kits and has launched an emergency appeal to support the earthquake survivors. It has launched an urgent appeal in response to the earthquake.
Violence Against Women
Aid agencies have called for the disaster response to the earthquake to take into consideration the specific risks to girls, including ensuring they are protected from rape and sexual exploitation as a result of homelessness or displacement.
“In situations like earthquakes, people will be unable to return home and may be in temporary shelter for a protracted amount of time, which often leaves women and girls more vulnerable to gender-based violence,” Jayne Crow, head of the humanitarian unit at Plan International UK, said.
The earthquake has destroyed families’ homes and left them without basic essentials. Infrastructure is broken, and work and school disrupted. When resources are scarce, women can feel there is no choice but to engage in transactional sex for food or money.
The disruption caused by disaster can also leave girls at risk of being forced into early marriage.
“We know that girls who are married young in humanitarian contexts face poorer educational outcomes, serious physical and sexual violence, poor mental and physical health outcomes, and complications or even death in childbirth,” Crow said.
While sexual violence and exploitation by strangers are one specific danger, women and girls can also face enhanced risk of intimate partner violence in the wake of a disaster such as this month’s earthquake.
“Disasters also cause financial instability and mental trauma, which increases stress on families and can lead to increases in intimate partner violence and abuse,” Crow added.
At the same time, the lack of safe spaces due to collapsed infrastructure and the chaos of disaster can leave women and girls trapped in abusive homes with no where to go.
The earthquake risks disrupting education, and when girls miss school they are more at risk of sexual exploitation and early marriage. Child marriage has increased in Syria since the war began 12 years ago, while Turkey has the highest rate of child marriage in Europe, with 15% of girls married before the age of 18.
Girls who never return to school are specifically at risk.
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The earthquake has overwhelmed hospitals, particularly in the north-west Syria. Medical infrastructure in the region has been under sustained attack throughout the 12-year war.
Thousands of people are struggling with injuries and trauma, while destroyed infrastructure puts health at risk – a lack of safe, clean water for example can lead to the spread of sometimes fatal waterborne diseases.
These issues are not gendered, but women and girls do face specific health impacts – not least pregnant women who are being forced to give birth in dangerous situations. There have been multiple incidents of women having babies in the chaos of collapsed buildings.
“Studies have reported adverse reproductive outcomes following disasters, including early pregnancy loss, premature delivery and stillbirths,” Crow told Byline Times. “Disruption to health services, when hospitals may have been wrecked or are completely overwhelmed responding to the disaster, can also lead to ongoing issues like an increase in unplanned pregnancies and sexual and reproductive health problems.”
Girls may also face challenges managing menstruation – either by not being able to access period products or not having access to safe bathrooms or clean water.
“Social taboos around menstruation can make it extremely difficult to manage periods in an environment where bathrooms, shops and schools are damaged and girls don’t feel comfortable to ask for products,” she said.
Plan International’s emergency response work includes distributing period products so girls can have dignity in disasters.
Crow said it is important to take a “gendered lens” in the response to the earthquake to better protect women and girls. “The better we understand their specific needs, vulnerabilities, and capacities, the better we can support them and help them bounce back after a crisis,” she told Byline Times.