The Beri Road to Development: On Gender and Development in Rural Turkey

The Beri[1]Road to Development: On Gender and Development in Rural Turkey
By Nurcan Baysal (Turkey)

***Published in the book “Telling Our Stories: Women’s Voices From Middle East and North Africa”, edited by Zeina Zaatari, Global Fund for Women,San Francisco, 2011.
You talk about ‘rural development’. I don’t quite get what it means, but it would be good for us, women, if you could have the “beri” road improved….
Here, local women walk up to highlands to milk their animals every day, from June to September. We start out at around 10 in the morning and we reach our animals at around one pm. Milking takes half an hour. Then we walk back, each of us with a load of 10 to 25 liters of milk on our backs. Back home, we get busy again with childcare, boiling the milk, preparing dinner, etc. This lasts until 5 pm. After that, we again spend 2.5 hours walking to “beri”, which means that beri takes 5 hours each day… You talk about ‘rural development’. I don’t quite get what it means, but it would be good for us, women, if you could improve the road to “beri”. The road now is too stony, our feet get hurt and it is too tiresome. It will make our lives easier if this road were to be improved. I wish there was a tractor to take us to “beri” and bring us back. (Female, age 28, Duzcealan Village, married with 2 children)[2]
Eastern Anatolia is the Kurdish region of Turkey and also the least developed.  Poverty and unemployment are very high; 60% of the population lives under the poverty line.  One underlying reason for this poverty and unemployment is the armed conflict and forced migration caused by 20 years of conflict between Kurdish militants and the Turkish army.
The armed conflict reached a turning point in 1987 with the introduction of the “State of Emergency Regional Governorate” (OHAL). For the next 15 years, the OHAL regime became notorious for murders, executions, and grave violations of human rights. Between 1990 and 1995, up to 3 million villagers were forcefully displaced from their homes by Turkish armed forces. These people lost all their belongings and even their families during the evacuation. Without any government support in their new destinations, victims of forced migration faced grave difficulties and exclusion from the rest of the community in their new urban poor environments.
These extreme conditions in Eastern Anatolia have also influenced the emergence of the women’s movement in this part of Turkey.  In the period after 1980 and especially throughout the 1990s, because of the war, Kurdish women began to get out of their homes. Handan Caglayan, a Kurdish feminist, defines this process as the construction of the Kurdish woman’s identity. After the 1990s, Kurdish women became political actors in Kurdish politics. Suffering from the loss of their children, husbands, homes and villages politicized them; as Caglayan puts it, their suffering turned into a struggle to “demand their rights”.  At the same time, the first Kurdish women’s NGOs emerged in the region. By 2000, with support from the municipalities run by the Kurdish political party, the women’s movement in the region started gaining momentum. The municipalities began to establish women’s centers in the peripheries around the big cities and to support the creation of independent women’s NGOs in city centers. Meanwhile, rural areas were entirely neglected during this process. Almost all of the programs and projects developed for Eastern Anatolia targeted city centers and their peripheries.
Through my work with the Husnu M. Ozyegin Foundation, a philanthropic foundation that has been investing in the education of Turkey’s most impoverished areas for the past 20 years; I’ve helped launch a multi-dimensional, integrated program that aims to better the quality of life in the rural areas through income generation and human development programs. This program has allowed me to engage closely with the women in these villages and think about the intersection of development and women’s rights. One site for a field project has been in a village collective called the Kavar area of the Bitlis provinces.
The Kavar area is comprised of six villages and five hamlets with a population of 2,000 people.  Four of the villages were evacuated in the 1990s, and the other two are occupied by village guards, paramilitaries that were created by the Turkish state in the mid-1980s. Their stated purpose was to act as local militia in towns and villages, protecting against attacks and reprisals from the insurgents, terroristsand militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The rationale behind the establishment of this system was that it would be helpful for the Turkish Army to have additional forces, consisting of people who knew the region and the language, and who would assist the military in its operations against the PKK. Between 50,000 to 90,000 village guards are still present in southeastern Turkey.
Kavar is among the poorest areas in Turkey. Household earnings in the villages are, on average, below the national poverty line in Turkey where agriculture is the main type of employment. Kavar’s population is predominantly young with close to 40 percent of children under age 15. Large households with many children are commonplace in Kavar. Educational attainment is noticeably low, particularly for women. School enrollment, even at the elementary level, is far from universal in Kavar, particularly for girls. Late-registration and early dropout rates remain significant problems in education.
Many of the villages in East Anatolia are like Kavar. Women work as unpaid family workers and lack many of the basic human rights. In most rural areas in Eastern Turkey, there is a lack of provision of education for all and healthcare services. In the winter, many of the villages remain under snow for more than 5-6 months. After the evacuation in 1992, the villagers of Kavar are now trying to settle back in their home villages. In such areas, women customarily have a very heavy workload, where they spend the entire day providing for their family’s daily subsistence.  They have very little to no time to attend training programs, which proves that development programs can only succeed when they are integrated. This means that in addition to education and training activities, income-generating activities should also be integrated into development programs, especially for those programs implemented in the poorest areas.
We started income generating activities such as seasonal floriculture and beekeeping. Through these activities, we were able to draw their attention to our training programs in women’s rights, childcare, gender awareness and health. In partnership with ACEV (Mother Child Education Foundation) we developed a rural women’s training program on the issues of women’s rights, health, childcare, and the environment.  Many capacity building trainings and income generating activities were held in the past year for the women of Kavar. 

Development targets are more or less similar around the world. Agencies want everyone to be adequately nourished, have shelter, and protection against violence, etc. While these are important, what matters more is how one reaches these development targets. The methods used and the approaches adopted are the main determinants of success for development programs. 
As the women of Kavar have said, the most urgent problem is the improvement of the “beri” road.  If you tell them that their main problem is their low levels of income and that you will make them entrepreneurs, you will not succeed, as they already have a heavy workload and are unlikely to become entrepreneurs. What they want is a road that will make their lives easier. 
In conclusion, development programs that are conducted without the involvement and input of local actors and populations are most likely to fail. The choices, needs, wishes and visions of the local people should seriously be taken into consideration in all these programs. Any effort that disregards them will be bound to fail from the start. Women’s rights have also to be linked to these development ideals as discussing rights theoretically with women in these rural areas is not likely to yield results unless it is accompanied by actual steps to better their lives.

[1] Beri is a local word for highlands where animals are kept during the summer months and where they are also milked.
[2]Ozyegin Foundation, Field Research Report, Kavar, Bitlis, August 2008