Selma Demirelli
Ashoka 2007'ten beri   |   Turkey

Selma Demirelli

Water Lily Women's Cooperative
Selma Demirelli is spearheading the first women’s housing cooperative in Turkey operated exclusively by women in a region devastated by the 1999 earthquakes. Turning the adversity of the earthquakes…
Devamını oku
This description of Selma Demirelli's work was prepared when Selma Demirelli was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.


Selma Demirelli is spearheading the first women’s housing cooperative in Turkey operated exclusively by women in a region devastated by the 1999 earthquakes. Turning the adversity of the earthquakes into an opportunity to empower the women that were affected by them, Selma more broadly expands the rights of women and children in Turkey.

The New Idea

Selma has founded Turkey’s first women’s housing cooperative to empower women as property owners with full citizenship and financial stability. In the wake of Turkey’s most devastating earthquakes, Selma organized local women in a series of development, learning, and income-generation activities. But she recognized that their single most pressing need was housing. Beyond satisfying the basic need for shelter, owning property opens up doors for women and places them on a more equal legal footing with men, in addition to giving them critical financial stability. Their involvement in governing a housing cooperative helps them to learn key principles of finance, business development, loans, and urban planning, that they can draw on for future community or business ventures. 

Women’s property ownership in Turkey is very low, due in part to their rights being limited. The majority of married women in Turkey do not hold the deeds to their homes, and in the case of their husband’s death, the property frequently goes to the nearest male relative, usually a brother or uncle. Within Selma’s housing cooperative, single, widowed, and married women exclusively hold deeds. The women are responsible for the administration of the cooperative and are active in coordinating the design, architecture, and urban landscape of the first forty-eight unit housing plot. This kind of control and participation by women is unprecedented in Turkey and has generated national media attention.

Selma recently traveled to other parts of northern Anatolia to discuss the feasibility of establishing similar ventures that encourage women’s property ownership and catalyze a shift in their societal status.

The Problem

The citizen sector in Turkey has been very slow to develop as a consequence of several military interventions during past three decades. Following the coup d’état in 1980 and the imposition of martial law for four years, all citizen organizations (COs) were closed down and banned, and not until a decade later, were they functioning again at their pre-coup levels.

During this period, the Turkish state was also slow to institute development activities, particularly addressing the needs of the least advantaged in Turkish society. The rights of women and children were especially impeded, and little progress was made to ensure their rights. The majority of women living in the rural areas—or those who immigrated to the greater cities from rural Turkey—were married by religious authorities and refused registry by the state with attendant loss of citizen rights for both the women and children of those unions.

Two earthquakes in 1999 did play a prominent role in opening up new citizen sector activity again, but at a heavy price. The August and November 1999 earthquakes in the Marmara region of northern Anatolia were the most devastating in a century. Nearly 500,000 families and around 2 million people were affected; the economy of the region almost collapsed and more than 15,000 people lost their lives. Reportedly 93,000 housing units and 15,000 small business units collapsed or were badly damaged. Another 220,000 houses and 21,000 small businesses sustained damage to a lesser degree. One hundred fifty thousand people became unemployed and 130,000 were forced to live in prefabricated houses for an extended time. Because public authorities failed to react quickly to the earthquakes, the devastation reached further and lasted longer than anticipated. A massive civic movement helped fill the void left by state social services and reconstruction efforts. Citizens worked to immediately respond to the physical, economic, and psychological damage, which was especially severe for women and children whose families had been torn apart. These same citizens also began thinking about related activities that could enlarge the rights of Turkish citizens, in particular, those of women and children.

While Turkey granted the vote to women in the 1930s and is officially the only Muslim country with equal rights of inheritance and divorce for men and women, it still faces significant gender inequalities in property ownership, literacy ratio, labor force participation, political representation, and public visibility. While there is scarce information on women’s property ownership in Turkey, it is estimated that only 10 percent of women own property and were only recently given an equal share of the family’s assets in a divorce.

Particularly disadvantaged are husbandless women without access to good housing. If a woman’s husband dies, she is not typically entitled to the property. Rather, all or most of the property goes to the nearest male family member (or sometimes to a child if the woman has any children). Therefore, many women left alone—as thousands were after the earthquake—did not have a legal claim to their homes, and were without future financial stability.

The Strategy

Selma lived near the epicenter of the first and in the epicenter of second of two major earthquakes in Turkey in 1999. The building she worked in—The Education Foundation for Disadvantaged Youth—completely collapsed. Selma was compelled to do something in the wake, and was assigned by the local authorities as a coordinator in the primary crisis centre where she was responsible for distribution of humanitarian aid. She met the Supporting Women’s Labor Foundation and became involved as a field coordinator in the area of prefabricated houses. She also worked closely with Ashoka Fellow Sengul Akcar’s program of disaster recovery.

During this time, Selma realized the importance of physical housing being addressed before psychological counseling, economic development, or other types of women’s empowerment could happen. Tenants, especially women whose husbands died, were least likely to get government housing support and were left in the worst situations. Selma developed a strategy—with a women’s operated housing cooperative at the center—to expand women’s rights, property ownership, and legal claims through a series of empowerment activities.

She founded the Water Lilly project in 2002, with sixty members to focus on women’s citizenship participation. This initial group started a food and catering service (working out of an industrial kitchen capable of feeding 1,500) primarily serving weddings and other ceremonies. Through these activities, women learned how to be entrepreneurial, manage a business, and generate income. More than one hundred women, many single mothers with several dependents, have gained entrepreneurial skills and generated independent income for the first time in their lives.

Meanwhile, Selma has gotten women to register their marriages with the state to provide themselves and their children with state services they would otherwise be denied (for example, entry into schools). This was a simple but critical step towards full citizenship.

Given that many women in the region listed housing as their biggest problem since the earthquakes, Selma initiated the core of her strategy: A women’s housing cooperative where every step in construction, planning, and legal work is governed by the women members. To finance the cooperative, money from kitchen and catering activities is organized into a savings group and allocated appropriately.

The cooperative initially had 155 members. The group searched for a place on state-owned land and persuaded the ministry of development and housing to sell them the property with a low-interest long-term payment for forty-eight units. Each woman took on a US$12,000 mortgage over time for the parcel and all are involved in the design, architecture, and urban planning of the development. They have also bargained to the find best prices on building materials and contractors to complete the project. The structures are nearly finished and the women plan to move in later this year. Since money has ran out, they went to local banks for loans to complete the project. While initially reluctant to give large loans to a group of women, Selma convinced the bank by selling them the PR advantage of helping the first women’s cooperative in Turkey. With this initiative, she has learned that pioneering ventures don’t always go smoothly, but people learn on the way.

Although Selma heads this cooperative and her household collapsed in the earthquake, she is not getting a flat in the initial block of homes.

A second cooperative has been founded nearby with the aim to acquire land and build a similar venture. Interest from the media has peaked, with both print media and television poised to run this story by featuring Selma and her group of entrepreneurial women. Selma has also traveled to other parts of northern Anatolia to discuss the feasibility of establishing similar ventures in other parts of Turkey.

The Person

Selma, a survivor of the Turkish earthquakes, was active in rescue operations and reconstruction efforts following the disaster. She was engaged in Crisis Group, established and run by citizens. After witnessing how women and children were especially impacted by the loss of their homes and sometimes families, she decided to work as a project coordinator for one of the biggest foundations in Turkey (President, Ashoka Fellow Sengul Akcar nominated Selma). While there, she began to think about ways to bring lasting economic stability and independence to women—in the event of another disaster or unforeseen crises—ultimately elevating their societal status.

Selma studied the arts in Istanbul and when she married, she left university. She worked as an arts teacher at a high school, and as a social and cultural affairs coordinator at a local foundation. Her husband died just before the earthquakes, and the building she worked in collapsed. Some of her friends and colleagues died, and many suffered irreparable loss. With so much destruction and loss in her city, she found relief working on recovery efforts.

Selma was a recently awarded the Silver Medal of the Italian Red Cross. She has also received several certificates either from local or public authorities due to her contributions towards development in the region. For Selma, the best award is to help women gain fuller citizenship, develop entrepreneurial skills, found businesses, and own property for the first time.

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