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Deadly Turkish school fire reveals the challenges girls face in getting an education

A fire at a Turkish girls dormitory that killed 11 students in late November has cracked open a debate in Turkey about controversial approaches to educating girls in rural areas, and whether the government is doing enough to monitor religious groups who increasingly are educating them.

Turkey has been in mourning since late November when a fire rampaged through a dormitory in Aladag, a town of 18,000 in Adana province of southeast Turkey. The fire is believed to have been caused by an electrical fault, however reports from the town suggest that lack of proper inspection and inadequate emergency precautions played a major role in the tragedy.

The girls who lost their lives, as young as 11, were staying in a dormitory, away from their families.

Since the 1990s, Turkey favors a so-called mobile education system where poorly staffed schools in remote villages are closed down and replaced with fully-staffed, larger schools in towns. To get there, families must send their children in buses with long commutes, or opt to house them in dormitories at the schools.

Where there is a shortage of dormitories, religious sects are filling in the gaps — often leaving families with no other choice than sending their daughters to religiously organized dorms. The building where the fire killed 11 girls and a teacher, was one such dormitory, run by Suleymancilar, a religious Sunni Muslim sect.

Zeliha Avcı, 13, was among the children who died in the fire. Speaking to BBC Turkish, her father, Mustafa Avcı explained that they lived 35 kilometers away. A state-run dormitory had been demolished because it didn’t meet earthquake safety regulations. So the family’s only option for sending Zeliha to school was the sect’s dorm.

“Our financial situation wasn’t good. The teachers told us to send our children to this dorm. We didn’t want it, neither did the kids. But we didn’t have an option. That’s why our daughter was burnt to death there” the father said in the interview.

In talking to the local press, many families complained about aggressive recruiting tactics by powerful religious sects. Once in the school, their daughters were forced to pray, clean and cook in the dormitories. Even worse, some of the surviving students reported that prior to the fire, handles to exit doors had been removed by school officials — fearful girls would leave without permission. A number of girls died near the sealed exit door.

Currently, there is an investigation underway, and six school employees have been arrested.

This is not the first time a deadly accident has occurred at a religious dormitory run by Suleymancilar. In 2008 in Konya, 17 female students died from a gas explosion in a dormitory. Despite a lengthy trial, no arrests have been made.

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[This story is a part of Across Women’s Lives]

[Photo Credit: Murad Sezer/Reuters]
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