Digital skills help Turkish women maintain an income amid COVID-19

Despite stay-at-home measures and periodic lockdowns, Syrian and Turkish women are selling handcrafts and other products online, thanks to coding, computer literacy and Internet marketing skills they learned at Multi-Purpose Community Centres.


Berivan Atilgan lives in Şanlıurfa with her husband and three children. Photo: UN Women Tayfun Dalkılıç
Berivan Atilgan lives in Şanlıurfa with her husband and three children. Photo: UN Women/Tayfun Dalkılıç

From behind her phone screen, Berivan Atilgan smiles as she receives another order for her. Atilgan’s hand-crafted toys, baby blankets and baby socks used to be an important added source of income for her family. Now, they are the only source of income. Every new online order covers the expenses of another day. Her husband, who used to be a seasonal agricultural worker, cannot work due to the measures taken to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“Just a few years ago, I was sitting at home, doing nothing. Now, I have an Instagram account where I promote my handcrafts. Sometimes I even have to speed up production to cater to my clients,” says the 43-year-old entrepreneur and mother of three from Şanlıurfa, southeastern Turkey, near the Syrian border. “When I got married, my husband didn’t allow me to work or do anything else. He did not even let me go out alone. I was at home all the time. It was boring and tiring.”

Then a friend suggested that Atilgan join the Multi-Purpose Community Centre run by the Southeastern Anatolia Project Regional Development Administration (GAP Administration). Launched in in 1995, there are now 44 of them in nine provinces, contributing to sustainable development and reducing poverty by training disadvantaged women.

Atilgan became one of the 2,800 Syrian and Turkish women who have enhanced their skills and employability between 2019 and March 2020, thanks to training at the Multi-Purpose Community Centres, which are being supported under a UN Women project funded by the Government of Japan and implemented in partnership with the GAP Administration and the Association for Solidarity with Asylum-Seekers and Migrants.

Thanks to UN Women’s digital skills training, Atilgan is now using Instagram to promote her handicrafts. Photo: UN Women Tayfun Dalkılıç
Thanks to UN Women’s digital skills training, Atilgan is now using Instagram to promote her handicrafts. Photo: UN Women/Tayfun Dalkılıç

Atilgan says she initially made handcrafts as an escape, but they became almost like her psychologist. “Because coming here and working on my handicrafts made me happier, my husband also supported me. This year, I attended the digital skills training course provided at the Centre. I had an Instagram account but I didn’t know how to use it for marketing purposes. After joining the digital skills training course, I started to use it differently, to promote my handicrafts. Now, digital marketing is my job.”

Since mid-March, Turkey’s COVID-19 prevention measures have kept people home, but Atilgan has had no lack of work. “If I didn’t have any digital skills, I couldn’t have continued my sales, which brings the only income we currently have as a family. I market on Instagram and receive online orders from all over Turkey.”

Besides allowing her to put food on the table, Atilgan says the digital skills she learned at the Centre have enabled her to use social media to stay updated and in touch with friends and family.

Holding on to life and standing on her own feet

Emine Yavuz,41, is a mother of three who lives in Şanlıurfa.
Emine Yavuz, 41, is a mother of three who lives in Şanlıurfa. Photo: UN Women/Tayfun Dalkılıç

Emine Yavuz, 41, is another mother of three from Şanlıurfa who learned digital skills, coding and computer literacy at the Multi-Purpose Community Centre, which helped her come out of her shell.

“It’s difficult to be a woman in this part of the country. I was raised in a family of 11,” says Yavuz. “We were told that women shouldn’t go outside; women should stay at home; women can’t look outside a window. … I lost my father when I was young. However, I didn’t want to get married. Because I saw violence and restlessness from my father, I thought that if I got married, my life would be full of violence.”

“Thanks to the Multi-Purpose Community Centre, I learned how to hold on to life and stand on my own feet. Now, I work at the Centre and provide administrative support.”

This year, Yavuz joined the online marketing courses, which have enabled her to sell handcrafts from home. “I am thankful that this [lockdown] didn’t happen in the past, when I didn’t have any digital skills. Now, even though I stay at home, I can still travel around the world.”

Zeynep Aydemir-Koyuncu, Programme Management Specialist at UN Women Turkey, says the partnership with the GAP Administration seeks to bolster gender-responsive services in existing community centres, to include psychosocial support, counselling and referrals to public services or opportunities made available by civil society organizations, as well as to provide vocational training.

“Women not only improve their employability but diversify their sources of income,” says Aydemir-Koyuncu. “This strengthens women’s resilience in times of crisis.”

The project also supports the peaceful co-existence of Syrian and Turkish women through activities to increase solidarity between communities, including Turkish language clubs and dialogues to promote social cohesion.