Berna Yagci is creating women’s community centers in southeast Turkey where for the first time women may gather in a public space to learn and be trained to take leadership in improving their lives. She has established a concrete method of generating income through an official cooperative, Silk Road, where women produce handicrafts and artisan soaps. Her work gives women decision-making power in a 2,000-year old patriarchal culture that is still immersed in a century of military and political conflict.
The New Idea
In a strife-ridden area of southeast Turkey, Berna has designed a new community space for women. Beginning with a physical gathering place which is also a day care center, Berna provides women with literacy education, vocational training, and concrete ways to earn an income. Her work gives women an unprecedented opportunity to become agents of change both in their own lives and in the fabric of their communities. Nothing could be more important in this part of Turkey, where citizen action is desperately needed.
Berna’s community centers for women are the first development initiatives led by a Mardin woman. She negotiated for municipal space to be designated only for women and transformed it and other similar spaces into places of learning, training, and income generation. Participating women are empowered to demand their rights and those of their children. They are more capable of negotiating with local officials about matters that affect their families and communities, and having an income provides them with new freedoms. For Berna, these centers are vehicles to break down stereotypes about women’s capacity to contribute to society.
With the initial success of Berna’s first center, she opened another outside Mardin. Her model has generated interest in similarly poor cities of southeast Turkey, and neighboring Syria. Her goal is to expand a straightforward but powerful model that gives women the ability and confidence to create change, both in Turkey and nearby Arab nations.
Mardin is a city in the far southeast of Turkey not far from the border with Syria and Iraq. Turkish, Arab and Kurdish communities, a far cry from westernizing Istanbul, suffer from low literacy, poor education and health services, and minimal economic opportunities. Women in particular are victims of long standing patriarchal conservatism that keeps them housebound and incapable of being proactive.
The large Kurdish community in Mardin lives in extreme poverty. The city is characterized by low literacy rates and high child mortality—remnants of decades of political unrest and military conflict between Kurdish militants and the Turkish army that continue to plague the region. During this time, untold numbers of people were forced from the countryside into poor neighborhoods around Mardin; pressured to support the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) or were perceived as doing so by the state. Many of their mountain villages were raised to the ground.
Today a large military garrison remains in Mardin and the political climate is unstable. The city and surrounding region are economically decayed and religiously conservative, even by the standards of a country that is anything but European in its dimensions. State social services are minimal where they exist at all and because of the military conflict in the region, citizen organizations (COs), until recently, have been reluctant to operate.
The situation for women is especially difficult. For religious and cultural reasons, they live under a sort of permanent house arrest, with a limited if any role in social and economic life. They do not have the opportunity to become literate and learn, or the means to develop independent incomes. In households with many children, since there are no childcare opportunities, women are anchored to the home even in rare cases where their husbands encourage them to find work or go to school.
One reason women remain disempowered in Mardin is that they have no community gathering space. Public cafes and tea gardens are exclusively male arenas. Women are expected to have authority only within the sphere of the household. Without a designated space for women to gather and feel comfortable—and their children cared for—women’s literacy, income generation, and community organizing are all but impossible.
Berna’s strategy is simple: Provide women with a communal space complete with childcare, basic education opportunities, and skills training and they will be empowered to change their situations.
When Berna was only nineteen she began taking walks in her surrounding neighborhoods—most of them poorer than her own—because she was interested in the lives and struggles of the women living there. Because Berna is of Arabic heritage, she did not speak Kurdish and was initially greeted with timidity and suspicion. Her father, in an unusual show of support in this conservative patriarchal society, offered to help her learn basic Kurdish to further her efforts. Berna quickly became familiar with the realities and struggles of the women and was inspired to assist them.
Berna’s initial strategy was to secure a physical gathering space for the women—a critical starting point. As long as women were housebound, they could not have a collective voice or influence in their communities. In early 2002, Berna went directly to the municipal government and persuaded them to donate two floors of a building. Immediately, a small group of women began gathering. Though from different backgrounds—Kurdish, Arabic, and Turkish—they quickly understood their shared needs and began to develop a common agenda to do something about it.
To attract more women to the center, Berna offered childcare services to all participants. Women with children could then participate in group activities while their children were looked after. This was essential: It gave the women freedom to participate at the center without feeling they were rejecting their duties as mothers. Then, Berna recruited volunteer literacy teachers to teach basic reading and writing, encouraging women to learn with their children and to take the exercises home. Berna attained donated books from around the country and build a small library in the center.
Teaching women to read and begin communicating more effectively was a milestone in their progress towards more community engagement. Once women begin reading and writing at basic levels, they are empowered to advocate more effectively for their rights and concerns. Berna has since organized role-play sessions where women practice how to communicate with authorities. They learn negotiating skills and how to be persuasive. After just a few sessions, their improved confidence translates into greater community action. Berna also recognized that economic dependence on husbands was a key contributor to women’s status in Mardin. She pushed for the local government to donate another space to become a production facility for handicrafts and artisan soaps. Berna formed an official cooperative—Silk Road—entirely governed by women. In 2003 she persuaded Turkey’s largest olive oil company to donate olive oil as an initial capital investment. By the next year they were producing 50,000 bars of soap annually and employed thirty women. Berna works closely with volunteer design students to help brand and market the soaps for national sale. The profits from the cooperative are distributed to the members and invested into the adjacent community center.
Today, a similar center in lower Mardin is open, and other communities in southeast Turkey have made specific requests for Berna to replicate the model. The unique combination of childcare center, learning center, and work center is an ideal formula for attracting many women from poor communities, and to ultimately help them to help themselves.
Finally, the Syrian government, because of a major dam project near the Turkish boarder and various social programs attached to the project, has expressed interest in importing community centers into Syria. While they have not explicitly asked about Berna’s model, the fact that Berna and her colleagues are Arabic-speaking presents a wonderful opportunity to expand her successes throughout the Arab world.
Berna, a native of Mardin and of Arabic heritage, is an extraordinary example of an entrepreneur who refused to be satisfied by the status quo. As early as eighteen, her strong interest in social concerns led her to risk taking unaccompanied walks to neighboring communities. She has always felt a deep sense of responsibility for the community where she was born, and this fuels her dedication.
While the majority of young women her age and with her level of education were leaving the city for better economic conditions or to get married, Berna stayed in Mardin to continue her education at a vocational school, and worked part-time as a field coordinator for an Istanbul-based CO.
She began taking walks to Kurdish Mardin more frequently in her late teens and early twenties. Her parents knew where she was going when they saw her put on a particular pair of boots she wore for these treks, but unlike more conservative families in Mardin, Berna’s parents were uncommonly accepting about her choices. It was evident from early on that this was her passion.
As a result of these walks, and the many observations and conversations she had, Berna was increasingly convinced that lasting change would have to begin locally, driven by women and for women. Her ability to persuade others to support her initiative—from local authorities to academics to business executives—is evidence of her unyielding will. Today, still not yet thirty- years-old, Berna is a “local hero” in Mardin.