“Now is not the time for you or your needs”

A Feminist Intersectional Analysis of the 2023 Earthquakes in Syria and Turkey

One year into the devastating earthquakes that shattered lives across northern Syria and southern Turkey, immerse yourself in a compelling multimedia experience to uncover the many challenges and admirable resilience amidst disaster and conflict. Read, listen to, and watch the untold stories of Syrian women who lived through the 2023 earthquakes. Their narratives reveal how they navigated gender-blind disaster responses, bureaucratic complexities, and political turmoil, both in war-torn Syria and as refugees in Turkey. Join us in this deep exploration and be a part of redefining disaster management through their eyes.

1) Introduction

On 6 February 2023, a catastrophic earthquake shook northern Syria and southern Turkey, unleashing consequences that reverberated far beyond the immediate tremors. Since then, the unforeseen natural disaster has not only disrupted communities, but has also added a new layer of complexity to an already tumultuous socio-political landscape for Syrians living in affected areas in Syria and Turkey. Although the global precedence of such an earthquake is not unique, it holds unique significance in the Syrian context due to the ongoing conflict, geopolitical intricacies and existing challenges faced by the population.

Beyond coping with the immediate physical and emotional consequences of the disaster, Syrians in both countries also had to navigate intricate political ramifications — challenges that, for many, persist today. The earthquake intensified their pre-existing vulnerabilities, enmeshing them further in the wider political and geopolitical struggles they have already endured. In particular, Syrian women found themselves contending with a gender-blind, obstructed, weaponised and manipulated disaster response, coupled with increased displacement within war-torn Syria. Additionally, as refugees in Turkey, they faced a maze of political dynamics, including discrimination, bureaucratic hurdles and gender-related challenges. Throughout this ordeal, the Syrian people themselves, drawing upon local resources and adaptable movements not confined by borders or conflict zones, played a vital role in saving lives and compensating for the inadequate response from both government and international systems. Remarkably, women emerged as unsung heroines, embodying altruism and community solidarity.

Drawing from the invaluable insights and real-life experiences of Syrian women who endured the 2023 earthquakes and their aftermath in both Syria and Turkey, this project seeks to better understand the significant gap in disaster response in conflict zones such as Syria. In conflict-affected areas, there is often a deficiency in the comprehensive understanding of gender dynamics and the intersectional factors influenced by political and conflict-related contexts. This gap results in crisis management strategies that inadequately account for the unique vulnerabilities, requirements and capabilities of different groups, as well as the complexities of the ongoing conflict.

Our primary goal is to amplify the voices of Syrian women, and utilise their insights to offer well-informed, intersectional, feminist and gender- and conflict-sensitive recommendations for more effective disaster response and recovery efforts in Syria and similar conflict-affected regions. We aim to challenge traditional notions of disaster management that perpetuate gender inequalities and disregard conflict and political dynamics by exploring the intensified challenges faced by women and girls, the intersection of conflict dynamics and humanitarian operations and the emergence of resilient women’s leadership.

2) Setting the Stage: Context, Magnitude and Interconnected Dynamics

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The aftermath of the 2023 earthquakes in Syria and Turkey has revealed the complex challenges confronting a population already deeply immersed in enduring conflict and political turmoil. The earthquakes have acted as an illuminating window, offering valuable insight into the interconnected layers of conflict, gender dynamics and crisis response across multiple fronts.

3) Methodological Approach

Capturing First-Hand Perspectives and Insights

While there is a growing academic interest in studying the earthquakes and their aftermath, the true severity and complexity of the impact can be best understood by listening to the voices of those who have lived through them. These individuals are best positioned to highlight the gaps within the response efforts and provide valuable insights that can inform future recommendations. 

Therefore, going beyond the statistics and traditional research approaches, our goal has been to comprehensively examine the intersectional impact of the earthquake by actively engaging with women who directly or indirectly experienced the earthquake crisis in Syria and Turkey. To achieve this, we organised four gender-specific focus group discussions involving women who were impacted. These discussions provided a platform to explore their collective experiences and facilitate open dialogue on various topics, including gender issues, humanitarian response, the compounded impacts of the conflict and the earthquake and the roles of women in disaster response. 

The selection of participants was purposefully carried out, taking into consideration the earthquake-affected regions (southern Turkey and northern Syria), various age groups (ranging from 23 to 55 years old to address diverse needs) and the inclusion of women of different nationalities (Syrian and Syrian Turkish, where applicable). Each focus group consisted of seven to ten participants. In addition to the focus group discussions, we conducted three semi-structured interviews to complement the data collected and address any identified data gaps.

In our research approach, we employed feminist methodologies that emphasise the significance of individual experiences while avoiding broad generalisations or claims of representation.

As with any research endeavour, it is crucial to acknowledge that limitations exist, and our work remains open to further development, modification and constructive criticism. A primary constraint was the time limitations inherent in post-disaster contexts. The dynamic and time-sensitive nature of disaster aftermath necessitates rapid research responses, which can challenge the depth and scope of in-depth investigations. Ensuring representation of a diverse age range, particularly girls and young women under 20, posed an additional challenge. Although the difficulty in accessing the perspectives of both younger and older women could impact the comprehensiveness of our findings, the insights gathered from the represented demographics still offer substantial value, shedding light on the experiences and needs of these groups in disaster situations. Another limitation was the restricted geographic diversity, especially concerning women participants from Turkey. Our focus was primarily on specific areas impacted by the earthquake, predominantly Gaziantep, which may have excluded other useful insights from crucial regions like Hatay and Urfa. Despite these limitations, the research carries considerable value. It sets the stage for more extensive future research that can build upon these initial findings, and offers valuable gender-sensitive and feminist recommendations for more efficient and comprehensive crisis response strategies and mechanisms. 

4) Resilience through the Lens of Syrian Women

A Feminist Intersectional Analysis of the 2023 Earthquakes

4.1) Unveiling Gendered Challenges in the Aftermath of the Earthquakes

Insights from Syrian women, residing both within Syria and in the affected regions of Turkey, offer invaluable perspectives on the disproportionate and intersecting impacts of natural disasters and disaster response on women and girls in conflicted-affected settings. In the context of the Syria/Turkey earthquake, their testimonies and experiences help peel back the layers of the earthquake’s impact, going beyond the immediate destruction to uncover the long-lasting, multifaceted repercussions on vulnerable populations with a special emphasis on the gendered dimensions of these experiences.

According to the women we interviewed for this analysis, the immediate aftermath of the earthquake was harrowing. They faced challenges from the moment they had to evacuate their homes and seek shelter in cars, camps or with unfamiliar hosts. Relocating to camps or relatives’ houses also brought privacy, hygiene and social challenges, especially for women. Additionally, mothers faced an even greater burden.

An alarming aspect in the aftermath of the earthquake was the neglect of women’s essential needs in aid distribution, namely underwear and sanitary pads. Survivors in Syria and Turkey highlighted this on multiple occasions. Women who were menstruating were also often subjected to hate speech and harassment by their surrounding community.

The earthquake also deeply affected the mental well-being of Syrian women in both Syria and Turkey. One woman’s testimony reflects the lasting psychological scars: “Even a month after the earthquake, I literally couldn’t sleep for more than an hour a day! I developed a nervous condition, and I am still taking medication for it. Many people don’t believe our fear, but we are still terrified!” (Syria, Lattakia)

Mothers, in particular, bore an overwhelming psychological burden as they navigated constant fear for their safety while shouldering the immense responsibility of caring for their families, rendering them vulnerable. Furthermore, societal expectations often unfairly placed the entire weight of ensuring children’s well-being on women, neglecting or downplaying the roles of men.

The discussions also shed light on a deeply concerning trend: a significant increase in violence against women in specific earthquake-affected areas. The convergence of a natural disaster and pre-existing conflict dynamics created a hazardous environment, particularly for women. One participant highlighted the gravity of the situation:

The presence of communal bathrooms in accommodation centres, the absence of violence protection staff and the placement of male staff in women’s accommodation centres were identified as major oversights. This goes against the conservative nature of the community, as women may not feel comfortable reporting violations or exploitation to male personnel. Furthermore, we heard that some camp managers and volunteers involved in the response process and service provision committed violations against women. One participant shared, “For example, an employee took the information of a beautiful widow and asked her to stay with him at the site to get two baskets instead of one.(Syria, Idleb)

Apart from strictly gender-specific accounts, the intersectionality of factors like disability and age also heightened the vulnerabilities of specific groups, especially the elderly and persons with disabilities, leading to distinct struggles for each group. Unfortunately, accessibility to aid and the fulfilment of basic needs were often overlooked for individuals with disabilities, including those whose disabilities were a result of injuries sustained in the earthquake. Additionally, the elderly encountered multiple difficulties in meeting their needs during this challenging period.

The earthquake’s impact on women and girls was exacerbated by conflict dynamics in Syria and among refugees in Turkey. In northern Syria, limited access to resources and medical equipment in the wake of the earthquake severely affected women’s health, particularly during childbirth and miscarriages. Moreover, many women residing in makeshift structures in fragmented areas of Syria lacked necessary identification documents. This made accessing shelter in more stable buildings challenging, forcing them to contend with gender-specific challenges in poorly equipped camps. And in Turkey, Syrian women refugees were particularly prone to the discriminatory conditions that arose post-earthquake.

In sum, the earthquake laid bare the immediate and compounded challenges faced by women and girls, and vulnerable groups more generally, in Syria and Turkey, revealing the intricacies of gendered experiences and emphasising the imperative for a gender-sensitive and intersectional approach in disaster response and recovery efforts. Women’s experiences during and in the aftermath of the earthquake underscore the necessity for comprehensive strategies that not only address the visible aftermath but also the deeply rooted systemic issues that perpetuate vulnerabilities for women in times of crisis. In conflict zones like Syria, women and vulnerable groups already face numerous challenges, and the earthquake significantly intensified these. The added burden of navigating post-earthquake realities on top of the ongoing conflict placed an enormous strain on them.

4.2) Charting Uncharted Waters: Aid and Humanitarian Response in the Midst of Politics

The 2023 earthquakes in Syria and Turkey highlighted not just the logistical challenges of aid distribution but also the deeply rooted political complexities influencing resource allocation in crisis situations — which in turn can influence the responses and policies of regional governments and the international community. 

In Syria, the earthquake’s impact was intensified by the Syrian regime’s actions. The regime’s wartime destruction, economic policies, corruption and mismanagement significantly exacerbated the disaster’s severity. Moreover, the regime has weaponised humanitarian assistance, obstructing its delivery to areas controlled by the opposition. In the disaster’s wake, the regime continued to manipulate the distribution of humanitarian aid, simultaneously using the crisis to call for the lifting of international sanctions and to mend relations with regional and Western countries. This situation underscores the urgent need to tackle the political, social and economic challenges heightened by the earthquakes, both within Syria and in its dealings with the international community (Daher, 2023).

Following the earthquake, Assad’s government, suspended from the Arab League since 2011, quickly leveraged the disaster and the resultant need for humanitarian aid in Syria for diplomatic gains. This calculated strategy rapidly evolved into an intensified diplomatic push, shifting blame for the devastation of Syria’s infrastructure from Assad to the natural disaster. Notably, countries like Tunisia showed an interest in enhancing relations with Damascus, and Saudi Arabia, previously an ardent critic, sent aid to Aleppo. Assad also engaged diplomatically with other regional leaders, hosting foreign ministers and receiving high-level calls, reflecting a shift in regional dynamics (Hilani, 2023).

The complexity of aid operations in Syria, particularly following the 2014 cross-border resolution, has had mixed effects. While the resolution improved aid delivery, it also created a scenario where millions depend on negotiations with those who initially hindered aid. The February earthquake intensified these challenges, especially in opposition-controlled areas. The Syrian regime’s unaltered stance on aid access, evident in its post-earthquake behaviour like aid delays and access restrictions to the northwest, highlights the ongoing struggle for a principled humanitarian approach. The UN’s growing cooperation with Damascus and its move towards a unified “One Syria” strategy raised concerns about the safety of aid workers and civil society actors in the northwest. Many of these individuals, labelled as terrorists by the regime for their humanitarian work, now face increased risks due to the potential information flow to the regime. Recent arrests and harsh penalties for unregistered aid work in Damascus-controlled areas underscore these dangers (Beals, 2023).

Insights from women who have personally faced these challenges starkly reveal the disparities in aid distribution and the intricate intertwining of politics, security and geopolitical factors.


4.2.1) Aid Distribution Across Syria: Political
Influences at Play

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, the urgency of aid delivery became a paramount concern. However, the unequal distribution across different regions underlined the complexities of navigating the political terrain in Syria. This issue manifested in various ways, impeding equitable and timely responses due to political considerations or other repercussions stemming from the war, such as internal strife.

The earthquake severely affected the Aleppo (government-controlled) and Idlib (opposition-controlled) governorates, with lesser impacts in Latakia, Tartous, Homs and Hama (all under government control).

In the aftermath of the earthquake, the politicisation of aid delivery in Syria created significant delays and barriers across both government-controlled and opposition-held areas. International and local responses have been hindered by political manoeuvres, with aid routes and entry points being manipulated for strategic advantages. The complexities of internal conflicts and bureaucratic hurdles further obstructed relief efforts. This has led to severe consequences for the affected populations, as delays and selective aid distribution exacerbate the crisis and hinder lifesaving efforts.

A significant aspect of aid politicisation emerged in the way areas outside Syrian regime control experienced substantial delays and barriers in receiving aid compared to regions under its influence. Witnesses to the earthquake reported various manifestations of this issue: obstacles imposed by de-facto authorities including the Syrian government, preferential treatment and manipulation of aid routes into Syria. Particularly in northern Syria, and more so in Idlib, these political challenges were starkly evident.

Those outside and inside northern Syria shared how challenging it was to deliver aid across conflict lines, impacted both by actions from the Syrian regime and conflicts between various authorities in areas outside regime control.

The regime’s exploitation of the situation also emerged as a notable observation, contributing to the exacerbation of the crisis and to loss of life. A resident of Idlib highlighted that sovereignty in international law, which dictated that aid could only be delivered with government permission, allowed the regime to exploit this situation and to delay necessary aid.

Beyond local passage of aid, the situation in Idlib highlighted the broader issue of aid crossings manipulation and politicisation since the war began and its significant impact on aid distribution and on loss of lives. The delayed and selective entry of international aid became a major obstacle, severely hindering the humanitarian efforts.

Even in regime-held areas, the Syrian government also obstructed aid deliveries to survivors under its control, but who were perceived as opposition. According to Amnesty International, between 9 and 22 February, the government prevented trucks carrying fuel, tents, food and medical supplies provided by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and a local organisation from entering the “Kurdish” neighbourhoods of Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafieh in Aleppo. Even before the earthquake, these areas were facing depleted medical supplies, leaving them ill-prepared to cope with the earthquake-induced casualties (Amnesty International 2023).

"For example, in government-controlled areas, there are certain governorates that did not have equipment for removing the rubble. For example, Aleppo Governorate had a huge shortage of equipment and vehicles, a large number of which were destroyed in the war and were not renewed after the end of the military operations. The earthquake exposed and revealed the government's weakness in the regime-controlled areas and had a significant impact and increased the distrust in government institutions because their response compared to civil society and community initiatives was too small. The earthquake demonstrated the effectiveness of civil society’s role and response."
Syria, Lattakia [the participant was engaged in the response efforts in Aleppo and other affected regime-controlled regions]

Government inspections and security approvals were also highlighted as a significant factor causing delays in aid delivery within government held areas.

Regardless of the exact reasons for the aid blockages or delays, it was the people under the rubble who paid the heaviest price. This political manoeuvring had severe consequences for the affected populations, further complicating an already challenging humanitarian response landscape.

Apart from international and governmental politicisation, there was also regional [across different regions in Syria] and internal politicisation among the public. The situation became very delicate in Syria as it was closely tied to the issue of territorial control, and it created a significant divide among the population, reverting to the problems of the war itself.

An activist in the Qalamoun region, which was relatively unaffected by the earthquake’s destruction, observed a refusal to welcome displaced individuals from hotspots and survivors from affected areas. A civil participant in relief efforts herself, she explained, “I was specifically told not to open our doors to them. I was told ‘Take whatever you want to help them, but do not bring them to us. You can go and help them there, but they don’t come here.’” She explained that this directive came from influential figures in the Qalamoun region whose decisions carried significant weight.

This attitude can be attributed to a desire to avoid a situation similar to what had happened with the people of al-Qusayr in 2012 and 2014, which is believed by some to have triggered the influx of revolutionary activity into the region, ultimately leading to war and destruction in Nabek, the capital of the Qalamoun

Beyond Qalamoun, this divide could also be observed at the community level, particularly in places like Jablah, which is under government control. During the distribution of aid, there were instances where many people who had been displaced to Jablah during the war were not able to receive aid during the earthquake response because they were considered outsiders and had already been internally displaced. They were referred to as “Bedouins,” because they had distinct clothing or attire. Residents of the region would also question newcomers, asking where they had come from, how they had arrived and how they had received aid.

Additionally, there were instances of donors expressing preferences for distribution of items to some regions during the earthquake response, based on their own priorities or opinions. For instance, one witness who was involved in a donation drive to purchase clothing items, including hijabs and caps for women, recalled that one donor expressed concerns about distributing hijabs in Jableh. The donor questioned why these items were intended for Jableh when they should be allocated for Aleppo.

On the other hand, some believe that the community-level attitudes were not necessarily related to politicisation but rather stemmed from a sense of fear due to limited resources. A strong sense of support and solidarity within some communities was applauded.

Regarding northern Syria, this was not the case; quite the opposite, there was a strong popular response. People from Idlib, Ghouta, Homs, Daraya, and others all showed a significant response to the northern Syrian regions like Jandaris and Harim. There were substantial donations from northern Syria, as people contributed to the best of their abilities.
Northwest Syria
"For example, in government-controlled areas, there are certain governorates that did not have equipment for removing the rubble. For example, Aleppo Governorate had a huge shortage of equipment and vehicles, a large number of which were destroyed in the war and were not renewed after the end of the military operations. The earthquake exposed and revealed the government's weakness in the regime-controlled areas and had a significant impact and increased the distrust in government institutions because their response compared to civil society and community initiatives was too small. The earthquake demonstrated the effectiveness of civil society’s role and response."
Syria, Lattakia [the participant was engaged in the response efforts in Aleppo and other affected regime-controlled regions]

The distribution of aid and execution of humanitarian missions in Syria were significantly affected by the widespread involvement of military and armed groups. These groups not only hindered the flow of aid but also highlighted the complex interplay between conflict dynamics and humanitarian efforts. Ranging from military factions to local armed segments, they created substantial challenges for humanitarian workers, hindering their initiatives and complicating the provision of aid.

Military factions often dictated the terms for humanitarian activities. Many sought to capitalise on the crisis, demanding portions of the aid or attempting to exert control over relief operations.

Furthermore, the prevalence of armed groups created an atmosphere of insecurity for humanitarian workers. Threats, intimidation and expulsion from areas controlled by armed groups became regrettable realities for those trying to provide assistance. The consequences of such interference not only affected immediate response efforts but also had long-term repercussions, impacting the resilience and recovery of communities affected by the earthquake.

The challenge of transferring funds to and within Syria, especially for development and civil society organisations, emerged as another formidable obstacle that is intricately linked with existing sanctions and geopolitical dynamics. The situation was already strained before the earthquake, but the disaster further intensified these difficulties, exacerbating the challenges in delivering crucial aid and assistance.

These financial challenges have been particularly acute in opposition-controlled northwest Syria, which was also the area most affected by the earthquake. Here, the situation is further complicated by differing policies of donors and the varied control of the region by different groups. Organisations, especially those with headquarters in Europe, frequently encounter difficulties in sending money to their teams in opposition-held areas in Syria due to sanctions and banking restrictions. This impacts their ability to execute activities and provide support within the country. Additionally, the preferences and restrictions of donors play a role; some are reluctant to fund projects in areas controlled by certain groups, such as Turkish-controlled zones or areas under the control of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Salvation Government. In these areas, local authorities also impose their own restrictions. For instance, organisations operating in regions controlled by HTS are required to register, declare all their activities and pay taxes. These conditions, coupled with the risk of investigation or arrest for individuals and entities receiving substantial funds, create a complex environment for aid and development work.

In recent times, funding has been limited for Syria, which has had a negative impact on the people inside the country. Sending remittances has become challenging, even for organisations operating in the region, making it difficult for them to deliver transfers to individuals. This situation has had a detrimental effect, exacerbated by existing restrictions and governmental authorities. With limited funding and a lack of funded initiatives, a workaround to this issue was found through unclear transfers. For example, instead of sending a large sum of money, it was divided into several parts and sent through multiple remittance offices. This approach was adopted in different areas depending on their control, but it also posed security challenges.
Syria, Jenderes

The challenges of securing financial resources and ensuring sustainability are especially pronounced for small organisations, and were also evident post-earthquake. One earthquake survivor from Idlib recounted that “The Gaziantep hub [coordinating operations in northwest Syria] was affected. Organisations whose headquarters were in Gaziantep were paralysed and the centralisation of decisions led to the lack of urgent action in Syria and delayed decisions to open and use aid in their storages in Syria. This led to delays in making decisions from within Syria and delayed the distribution of aid from centres within Syria to those affected.”

Restrictions on money transfers also extend beyond opposition-held regions. In areas controlled by the Syrian regime, individuals and organisations still encounter considerable challenges in receiving funds, alongside significant risks such as interrogations or arrests. Following the earthquake, there have been reports of intense scrutiny regarding the source, destination, and usage of funds, adding to the complexities and risks associated with financial transactions in these regions.

The financial landscape, complicated by stringent adherence to sanctions, has rendered fund transfers precarious and curtailed contributions to earthquake relief efforts both in opposition- and regime- controlled regions. Sanctions have for long severely impacted the operations of organisations in Syria, with the primary issue being the difficulty in transferring and receiving funds. Compliance with banking procedures, prioritised by NGOs to deliver assistance, hinders their ability to respond effectively to emergencies. This has led to a focus on humanitarian activities in less restricted areas, potentially excluding marginalised and high-risk regions from support. Moreover, banking transactions involving Syria often face severe delays or cancellation, adversely affecting the daily activities of organisations operating in or on Syria (IMPACT, 2020).

In the aftermath of the earthquake, sanctions imposed on Syria have played out in various ways, leading to complex political and humanitarian dynamics. The Syrian regime used these sanctions as a pretext, claiming they hindered their ability to facilitate aid delivery, thus contributing to delays in providing necessary assistance. A civil activist from Idlib recounted, “The Syrian regime claimed that economic sanctions prevented them from facilitating the entry of aid, leading to decision-making delays and hindered aid distribution within Syria.” Moreover, both in the immediate aftermath and in the longer term response, the regime leveraged the earthquake to its benefit, leading to the easing of or circumventing long-standing sanctions and further normalisation of ties between various governments and the regime. Notably, three months after the earthquake, Syria was reinstated into the Arab League. 

In sum, financial constraints presented a dual challenge: firstly, transferring funds has become a convoluted process due to strict regulations and compliance measures, causing bureaucracy that slows down financial transactions needed for rapid disaster response. Secondly, these constraints hindered the flow of international aid to local organisations and initiatives on the ground. Women-led organisations and other Syrian civil society actors faced difficulties in receiving essential financial support from international donors, hampering their ability to implement response and recovery work. Small local women-led organisations and grassroots initiatives were particularly affected, as they have limited access to contingency funds and lack donor flexibility for grant reallocation (Jelnar Ahmad, 2023). Additionally, donor requirements, paperwork and lengthy processes further burden these already stretched women-led organisations.

Given the constraints of limited financial resources and a notable absence of significant external support, the initial response to the crisis was heavily dependent on the altruistic contributions and endeavours of individual volunteers. This approach, while driven by goodwill and determination, carried with it an inherent challenge: it was marked by unpredictability and inconsistency.


4.2.2) The Turkish Side of The Story: Political Influences at Play

Syrians residing in Turkey faced their fair share of challenges amidst the earthquake, revealing a complex interplay of political dynamics, including discrimination, bureaucratic obstacles and gendered challenges. 

The extent of politicisation appeared to vary based on individual experiences. One witness who lived through the crisis in Turkey noted, “I didn’t witness politicisation or favouritism between Syrians and Turks. Aid was dispensed by organisations based on the type of help required, and the centres were open to all. What I saw were individual behaviours rather than systematic policy.” However, another participant emphasised that “The Turkish agencies [and relief teams] generally gave precedence to assisting their own citizens first. Citizens of other countries, like Syrians, were often regarded as secondary when it came to receiving aid.” 

Regardless of who was responsible or their intentions, first-hand accounts reveal several instances of politicised manoeuvring in rescue operations, aid distribution and access to services. This situation was further compounded by an escalation of hate speech and widespread negative sentiment against Syrians in Turkey.

Rescue operations and recovery efforts in the areas affected by the earthquake exposed profound disparities and challenges, particularly for Syrian refugees. Eyewitness accounts raised concerns that rescue teams, upon identifying the ethnicity or nationality of those trapped under the rubble, might have shifted their priorities, leading to a concerning disparity in the treatment of victims. Moreover, rescue operations for Syrians trapped beneath the rubble were not given the same level of priority or urgency as those for others, particularly Turkish nationals.

I mean, in Turkey when rescue teams were coming to the area, they were rescuing people, they would hear that the people there were supposedly Arabs or Kurds, so the rescue groups were saying let them, these Syrians. Leave them, let us rescue the Turks first, then save the Syrians.

This discriminatory attitude seems to have persisted along with aid distribution after the immediate crisis. A Syrian mother living in Gaziantep noted that at the beginning of the disaster, there was no differentiation in aid distribution, as the shock and fear of the catastrophe prevailed. However, a few days after the disaster, signs of discrimination emerged. Access for Syrian women became particularly challenging, as Syrian women refugees have less opportunity to learn the language; they are also easier to identify as Syrians due to their hijabs (as the Syrian way of head covering is different than the Turkish way). One participant residing in a refugee camp in Turkey elaborated on these challenges:

The struggles of Syrians in Turkey in the aftermath of the earthquake in regions like Antakya and Gaziantep, extended beyond mere aid distribution to encompass broader challenges in accessing essential services. This situation was further complicated by legal and bureaucratic hurdles, since engaging with government services became increasingly difficult, as nearly every process necessitated a valid residence or travel permit — a requirement that became even more challenging for Syrians in the earthquake’s aftermath.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, the rise of racism and discrimination against Syrians in Turkey further complicated the situation. Syrian refugees in Turkey who shared their insights with us highlighted how this discrimination had a tangible impact on the complex and politicised environment faced by Syrians. 

The language barrier also emerged as a key aspect, with foreigners who speak the Turkish language having better access to aid. This linguistic discrimination added an additional layer of complexity, aggravating the vulnerabilities faced by Syrian refugees and creating a tiered system that impeded their access to crucial resources.

Those who spoke Turkish could communicate more effectively with the rescue and aid teams. However, when it was noticed that someone was of a different nationality or from another country, issues of politicisation arose, leading to delays in addressing their needs. There was also a general negative perception among Turks towards Syrians.
Southern Turkey

The escalation of racism and hate speech against Syrians in Turkey creates a concerning factor, emphasising the urgent need for targeted interventions to address these deeply rooted issues.


In sum, the politicisation observed post-earthquake in Syria and Turkey serve as a stark reminder of the broader issues at play in conflict zones, where political control intertwines with humanitarian response. The disparities witnessed raise critical questions about the accessibility and neutrality of aid efforts in regions marked by political strife. This inequality not only affects the efficacy of immediate disaster response but also has lasting repercussions on the resilience of communities grappling with the aftermath of both the earthquake and pre-existing conflicts.

4.3) Recognising Invaluable Contributions: Women's Leadership in Disaster Response and Beyond

In the context of the earthquake, the pivotal role of women’s leadership is undeniable. Despite being disproportionately affected by the earthquake, individual women, as well as women-centred and women-led organisations, stood out as exceptionally dynamic, proactive and impactful in their response (Jelnar Ahmad, 2023). Moreover, the earthquake underscored the unique challenges and strengths of women-led organisations and women leaders, who had already endured the difficulties of a prolonged 12-year conflict in Syria. 

First-hand testimonies gathered from Syrian women residing in Syria and Turkey provided profound insights into the individual, collective and institutional dimensions of women’s roles, underscoring their unique and indispensable contributions to disaster response and recovery.

At the individual level, women emerged as unsung heroines, exemplifying altruism and community solidarity. Regardless of their backgrounds, many women volunteered tirelessly to assist those affected by the earthquake, even as they themselves were dealing with its consequences. Their involvement ranged from providing essential material support to offering moral and emotional support to individuals struggling in the aftermath, as well as providing overlooked services and specific needs to women.

Women also coalesced into collective entities, forming grassroots spontaneous efforts, volunteer groups and initiatives that mirrored the collaborative strength of community-driven responses. These groups became focal points for generating ideas, pooling resources and implementing targeted interventions.

Many WhatsApp groups were highly active, led by a group of individuals, and these women were truly like shuttles available 24 hours a day to receive calls. In one group, many girls, or most of the girls present in Gaziantep, formed strong connections among the people.
Turkey, Gaziantep

Women’s leadership further extended to the institutional level, with many actively engaged in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or civil society bodies responding to the earthquake. As some have already been engaged in humanitarian efforts in some of the affected areas, they were quick to respond and assist. Others capitalised on their presence and knowledge of the context to provide tailored and specific responses that were sensitive to women’s needs. They worked separately and together to provide an example of tailored and flexible feminist resourcing and aid.

Women leaders broadened response priorities, moving away from the traditionally male-dominated emphasis on logistical and technical response aspects, to adopt a more holistic approach. Demonstrating exceptional adaptability and resilience, they not only addressed immediate needs but also catered to the complex requirements of diverse groups. Drawing on knowledge from years of war and conflict, these leaders employed a feminist holistic strategy to aid those in need, effectively transcending internal tensions and discrimination.

The sustained engagement of women-led organisations during the long conflict and their sensitive approach to crisis response furthered their awareness of the vulnerabilities that often go unnoticed in crisis situations. The nuanced understanding of the intersectional challenges faced by women and marginalised groups allowed them to focus on frequently neglected issues in crisis responses, such as the special needs of women, and aiding women journalists and first responders.

A noteworthy aspect was how women-led groups focused on psychological support from the very early phases of the disaster. Through individual and group psychological support sessions, women leaders created safe spaces for survivors to navigate the trauma and grief induced by the earthquake. Concurrently, recreational activities for children served as therapeutic outlets, offering not only respite from immediate challenges but also fostering a sense of normalcy in the midst of crisis.

The acts of solidarity demonstrated by women leaders and first responders fostered larger community resilience and solidarity. Their grassroots efforts highlighted an inherent commitment to aiding their communities during crises. These efforts transcended internal tensions or discrimination, providing support to vulnerable individuals and showcasing adaptability and resilience both in Syria and Turkey. They also helped bridge the gaps created by the different control authorities and by the conflict, and created a sense of understanding and solidarity among Syrians.

Women’s collective efforts in the aftermath of the earthquake highlighted their skills in organising and executing impactful initiatives that addressed immediate and long-term challenges. These women-led actions emphasised community-driven solutions, challenging traditional hierarchies and setting a precedent for inclusive, collaborative disaster response strategies.

Women leaders and women’s organisations played a crucial role in disseminating information, raising awareness and fostering spaces for dialogue and understanding. Utilising their roles as community connectors and leveraging their presence on social media platforms, these leaders became essential channels for critical information, advocates for the necessities and concerns of vulnerable populations and amplifiers of the frequently overlooked voices of women during the earthquake crisis.

Women leaders, cognisant of the fractures caused by the earthquake, actively engaged in building bridges between affected communities, official bodies and non-governmental organisations. Their initiatives focused on enhancing communication channels, fostering dialogue, and nurturing trust among different stakeholders. Recognising that effective communication is fundamental to a coordinated response, women-led organisations strategically navigated through the complexities of post-earthquake dynamics to ensure that vital information flowed seamlessly. Some participants also shared that some women volunteers and leaders helped in the translation and coordination with Turkish relief teams.