The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened the current social problems and intensified inequalities, all across the world. As in every crisis, some groups experience the effects of the pandemic more intensely. Women and girls come at the top of these groups.
Research shows that the rates of violence against women increased by 25 to 30 percent in many countries, and girls’ education has been disrupted by lockdowns and school closures with 743 million girls already missing out on their education. In Turkey, turbulent discussions around Istanbul Convention and TCK 103 (legal article on the sexual abuse of children) accompany the gendered impacts of the pandemic, and we face destructive effects in terms of women’s rights gained after years of struggle.
The gendered impact of COVID-19 has multiple dimensions; from education to violence, from employment to unequal division of domestic work, and the solutions are way over the capacity of any institution alone. Addressing complex issues such as gender inequality during times of crisis requires immediate collective action, and sets ground for civil society, public sector, private sector and the academia to combine their efforts. In a time of physical distancing, we should actually be closer more than ever.
As Sabancı Foundation, we have been providing grants to civil society organisations and gender equality is one of our main areas of focus. During the early days of the pandemic, we reached out to our grantee-partners to learn about their experiences and needs. In the light of these conversations, we revised our grant strategy in order to support the resilience and agility of our grantee-partners. However, the gendered impact of the pandemic was deepening at such a pace that we soon realised there was more to be done. Earlier this year we organised a meeting with 29 women’s organisations from Turkey in order to share the concerns on gender equality, to discuss the problems and solutions, and to establish solidarity. The report of this meeting entitled ‘The Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Gender Equality: Problems and Solutions’ can be reached through here. Following the meeting, we drafted a road map of short-term and long-term actions to be initiated and started collaborating with women’s organisations and related stakeholders on the solutions proposed during the meeting. Here, we share the highlights of the meeting, and the steps Sabanci Foundation is taking with its stakeholders to respond to those needs, which are primarily on combatting violence, creating awareness of legal rights and access to digital tools, raising digital literacy, and making advocacy on girls’ education.
Combatting violence and increasing awareness of legal rights
- The COVID-19 period shed a light upon the absence of mechanisms regarding struggle against gender-based violence, and the inefficacy of the already existing mechanisms. Violence hotlines have demands over capacity and are unable to respond to urgent needs of women. We contributed to the employment of an additional psychologist working for the violence hotline of Federation of Women’s Associations of Turkey.
- In order to increase the visibility of the violence hotline, we cooperated with Teknosa (Sabancı Holding’s electronics retailer company) to display the hotline number in television screens at all 217 Teknosa stores all around Turkey, and to hang posters in high-traffic areas of the stores.
- We carried out advocacy activities by informing the public opinion in order to protect the Istanbul Convention and ensured the involvement of different stakeholders.
- We started mainstreaming training activities on awareness of legal rights in all grant projects we support in the field of gender equality.
- In some cities, the only resource of solidarity and information for women who are exposed to violence and have no access to digital tools were local women’s organisations. The neighbourhood delegates were responsible of informing the women in their districts on their legal rights and steps to follow in a case of domestic violence. We started providing grants to two local women’s organisations this year, as they are proved to be very critical notably during times of crisis.
Access to digital tools and raising digital literacy
- During the pandemic period, women were not able to participate in digital environments adequately. Many women could not make their voices heard, both due to digital illiteracy, and the lack of facilities such as a phone, computer or a private room in their houses. In cooperation with Teknosa and Federation of Women’s Associations of Turkey, we launched a campaign to collect second-hand phones, both within Sabancı Group and within the public. After collection, the phones will be repaired and KADES application (The Women Emergency Assistance Notification System) will be uploaded. Phones will be anonymously distributed to women who has been exposed to violence, and women who got out of shelters. Access to internet is a human right, therefore women’s access to the internet should be seen as a rights struggle in the long term.
- We cooperated with Teknosa to provide digital literacy trainings to our grantee-partners whose target group is women. In addition, the women who will be receiving second-hand phones, will also be supported by these trainings.
Access to education during pandemic
- In a period of transition to online and distance learning, it is observed that girls are more at risk than boys of dropping out of school. Exclusion from online education is higher in rural areas due to lack of televisions necessary to follow national education programs. We collaborated with Hiltonsa in order to collect second-hand televisions and distributed them to rural areas with the support of KAMER Foundation (women’s organisation active in 23 provinces of Southeast and Eastern Anatolia) and KODA (Rural Schools Transformation Network).
- One of the main problems during the pandemic period was the lack of official and trustable data on girls’ education in Turkey. Gender segregated data should be collected in order to make more effective advocacy towards decision-makers. On this regard, we provide research support to Education Reform Initiative to collect reliable data on girls’ access to education and drop-out rates during the pandemic.
Solidarity, collective action, and being responsible towards each other will be some of the keywords we will be remembering when we think of the pandemic years from now. The pandemic period has strengthened our ability to act collectively, harness each other’s strengths, and respond to global challenges as one big team. It is now our biggest responsibility to benefit from these strengthened muscles in different global problems that similarly require coordinated, large-scale responses, such as the climate emergency. As one of the principle slogans of women’s movement in Turkey goes: ‘Together we are strong’.
Ayşegül Bayar Hildgen is Programs Coordinator at Sabanci Foundation