For Syrian women, quake adds disaster on top of war’s pain
Draped in a heavy wool shawl against the cold, Ayesha dragged her feet, her toddler granddaughter trailing behind her, as they made the 15-minute walk from her tent to the nearest bathroom in a nearby building, the only place they have to wash.
Seven days after the earthquake leveled their home in the northwest Syrian town of Atareb, the 43-year-old still has no access to water, electricity or heat for her and 12 family members, all crammed into a single tent.
“When I look at our house, I wonder how did anyone come out alive?” Ayesha said. “Maybe it would have been better if I died,” she added. “I came from under that rubble carrying the rubble of the whole world on my shoulders.”
She doesn’t know how much more she and other Syrians can take. Women in particular have shouldered the responsibility of keeping shattered families together during the past 12 years of civil war. The conflict and economic collapse left millions of people dependent on international aid. Now added to the litany of hardships is destruction from the earthquake, which killed tens of thousands and left millions homeless in southern Turkey and northern Syria.
With hospitals swamped by quake victims, Ayesha can’t get medical services to treat and monitor her liver disease. She and her husband both lost their sources of income in the quake. His taxi was crushed, and her stock of clothes that she once
sold to neighbors was destroyed.
They have nothing to provide for their six children and their five grandchildren, including two she took in after one of her sons was killed in the war. They have to share mattresses to sleep in their tent.
“If hardships are a sign of the love of God, it means God really loves the Syrian people,” Ayesha said, breaking out in tears. Like most women in this conservative community, she spoke on condition her last name be withheld.
Their tent is in a camp for quake victims in Atareb, part of the last opposition-held territory in northwest Syria, which has seen bombardment and fighting for years. Walking between rows of destroyed homes in the town, it is hard to distinguish which collapsed from the quake and which from intense military operations at the
height of fighting.
Syria’s war has loaded a particular burden and isolation on women, with so many men who were killed, detained, maimed or forced out of the country. The number of femaleheaded households across Syria increased by around 80% to comprise more than a fifth of households in 2020, according to the U.N.
Even before the quake, over 7 million women and girls across Syria needed critical health services and support against physical and sexual violence. Child marriage was on the rise, and hundreds of thousands of girls were out of school.
The immediate impact of the earthquake put at least 350,000 pregnancies in Syria and Turkey at risk, according to U.N. figures.
Women in the opposition-held northwest are especially vulnerable. Most of the territory’s population of 4 million fled there
after being displaced from other parts of Syria. Health care was already stretched thin and dependent on foreign aid. Now non-emergency medical services have been suspended to deal with the earthquake.
“We can treat the women after trauma or after delivery, but they need to go back to a safe environment with minimum housing, nutrition and clean water. Unfortunately, this is in general lacking in northwest,” said Basel Termanini, chairman of the Syrian American Medical Society which has dozens of facilities in the northwest.
Throughout the war, Ayesha and her family repeatedly fled from their home in Atareb during times of bombardment to safer areas, where they would stay for months until they could return. One of her sons was killed in 2019, and she’s been taking care of his two young children since.