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Safe spaces in Turkey offer health services and social support to Syrian refugees

ŞANLIURFA/ANKARA, Turkey — Muna*, a 20-year-old newly married refugee from Syria, was pregnant for a third time when she sought medical counselling at the Şanlıurfa Women and Girls Safe Space in south-eastern Turkey. After one miscarriage and a second unviable pregnancy, there was a risk that she would once again be unable to carry to term.

But an ultrasound conducted at the women’s centre showed that Muna’s pregnancy was developing normally. She received prenatal vitamins and regular monitoring at the centre during the second half of her pregnancy, and in her final month, she was referred to an obstetrics hospital where she delivered a healthy baby.

“The Women and Girls Safe Spaces aim to provide a comfortable and safe atmosphere for refugee women in Turkey where they can access information, counselling and basic services on sexual and reproductive health, including family planning, and sexual and gender-based violence, as well as referrals for more advanced care,” says Selen Ors, who coordinates UNFPA’s Turkey Humanitarian Response Programme.

With $10 million USD in funding from ECHO, the European Commission’s European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operation, UNFPA is supporting sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence service provision at 20 Women and Girls Safe Spaces across Turkey. With additional funding from Japan, Sweden and the United States, the total number of Women and Girls Safe Spaces in Turkey will soon reach 38, plus three dedicated centres for youth. Turkey is hosting some 3 million registered refugees, including 800,000 women of reproductive age, 86,400 pregnant women, and 480,000 young people, many of whom have suffered or are at risk of abuse, trauma, and neglected health.

Now I can obtain my rights without fear

Farrah*, a 38-year-old mother of four, was fleeing violence both in the streets and at home when she fled from Syria to Turkey with her children, including a newly born infant, after intense bombardment and conflict began in her home city. Farrah’s husband had abused her for years, beating her even during her pregnancy, cutting her hair to punish her, forbidding her from leaving the house, and threatening to kill one of their sons. “I don’t remember a single positive moment in my former life,” Farrah says.

Farrah first came to the Women and Girls Safe Space in Yenimahalle, a district of Ankara, to take Turkish language courses. There, she also met with a social worker who helped her start the process of obtaining identification papers and referred her to other organisations that could help her and her family receive financial assistance.

“We went through difficult times when we first came to Turkey; my 13-year-old son was out on the streets collecting garbage to earn money,” Farrah says. Though she had never worked for pay before in her life, Farrah now has a job as a health mediator, one of 35 Syrian women trained and employed to help connect members of the Syrian community in Turkey with the services available at the Women and Girls Safe Spaces.

“I was afraid to talk to anyone, even a little child, before, because I was afraid my husband or relatives would find me,” Farrah says. “But now I can obtain my rights without fear, because I feel strong enough to protect myself and my children.”

Distribution of family hygiene kits in Batman, Turkey. Photo: UNFPA Turkey

Providing psychosocial support to victims of gender-based violence and referrals to needed medical and legal services are among the key functions of the UNFPA- and ECHO-supported centres in Turkey, which are open to women and girls of all nationalities and staffed with both Arabic and Turkish speakers. Psychologists and other staff from the centres also pay home visits in the community, providing psychosocial support and distributing family hygiene kits.

Since the first of these centres began operating in 2015, nearly 200,000 women and girls have benefitted from support and services related to sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence. Women and Girls Safe Spaces in Turkey have provided antenatal and prenatal care services to more than 3,700 women; family-planning services to more than 7,600 women; and hygiene, dignity and maternity kits that have benefitted close to 12,000 people.

“The centres also provide a space for women where they can socialise and rebuild their social networks through recreational activities, language courses, and vocational courses to help empower them and alleviate the effects of trauma and stress they have faced before and during their migration to Turkey,” says UNFPA’s Ors. Handicrafts workshops for women and peer-education sessions for youth also bring Turks and Syrians together in a way that helps fight prejudices and integrate refugees into their host community.

‘I’ve found a new family atmosphere here’

“Before I found the women’s centre in Şanlıurfa, I felt like a stranger in this city,” says Rima*, a 24-year-old Syrian refugee from Aleppo. “I was not able to communicate with Turkish people and I had lost my friends in Syria. But after I attended language courses at the women’s centre, I started to have new friends from both the Syrian and Turkish community. I’ve found a new family atmosphere here.”

Women helped at the centres also go on to help others. Leila*, a 45-year-old Syrian mother of five, has always been a fighter. Married off at a young age, she divorced her husband when he wanted to take a second wife and went to work against her family’s disapproval to provide for herself and her children. Just when her situation was becoming more stable, the war broke out and her family was scattered, with two sons fleeing to Germany, one married daughter still in Syria, and Leila in Ankara, Turkey, with her third son, his wife, and their child.

Leila first visited the Ulubey Women and Girls Safe Space in Ankara with one of her friends, later attending educational and social activities at the centre. Eventually, she started volunteering there, and then became a paid health mediator.

Grateful that all of her family members are still alive and that she can do something to help others, Leila says, “Nothing in the world feels better than being self-sufficient!”

* Names have been changed to protect the women’s identities