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The tsunami's impact on women

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There is no scarcity of reflections and commentary on the impact of the disaster that shook the coasts of several Asian countries on 26 December 2004. The media have, at least until recently, looked into almost every conceivable angle: the impact on tourism, the impact on the environment, revealed underwater villages, even the impact on animals. One area that has so far received less attention is the gender impact of the tsunami, and its impact on women in particular.

As a result, we are a long way from really understanding the social impacts of the disaster, let alone what concrete steps must be taken to ensure that both the immediate response and long-term policies are effective in bringing relief.

This briefing seeks to promote debate and awareness of the issues and to ensure that the recovery phase of the relief effort integrates the problems raised. It looks at the impact of the tsunami in Indonesia, India, and Sri Lanka, and in particular at how it has affected women. It concludes with some recommendations about how we can start addressing the problems raised.

Getting the facts rights

Differences in context mean we cannot generalise

Oxfam's experience in disasters has shown that disasters, however 'natural', are profoundly discriminatory. Wherever they hit, pre-existing structures and social conditions determine that some members of the community will be less affected while others will pay a higher price. Among the differences that determine how people are affected by such disasters is that of gender.

So far we know that the tsunami killed more than 220,000 people in 12 countries spanning South-East Asia, South Asia, and East Africa while, according to the Red Cross, more than 1.6 million people have been displaced.

The information most urgently needed relates to mortality and displacement figures, disaggregated by sex. In Aceh province in Indonesia, and in India and Sri Lanka, there is abundant, if partial, evidence that many more women and children have died than men.

In Indonesia, in the four villages in the Aceh Besar district surveyed by Oxfam for this report, only 189 of 676 survivors were female. Male survivors outnumbered female survivors by a ratio of almost 3:1. In four villages in North Aceh district, out of 366 deaths, 284 were females: females accounted for 77 per cent (more than three-quarters) of deaths in these villages. In the worst affected village, Kuala Cangkoy, for every male who died, four females died -- or in other words, 80 per cent of deaths were female. In the Borongon camp, just outside Banda Aceh, a room accommodates 21 widowers who have chosen to live together to cope with the responsibilities of caring for their surviving children.

In Cuddalore in India, almost three times as many women were killed as men, with 391 female deaths, compared with 146 men. In Pachaankuppam village, the only people to die were women. In Sri Lanka too, partial information such as camp surveys and press reports suggest a serious imbalance in the number of men and women who survived.

Some of the causes of these patterns are similar across the region: many women died because they stayed behind to look for their children and other relatives; men more often than women can swim; men more often than women can climb trees. But differences too are important: women in Aceh, for example, traditionally have a high level of participation in the labour force, but the wave struck on a Sunday morning when they were at home and the men were out on errands away from the seafront. Women in India play a major role in fishing and were waiting on the shore for the fishermen to bring in the catch, which they would then process and sell in the local market. In Sri Lanka in Batticoloa District, the tsunami hit at the hour women on the east coast usually took their baths in the sea.

Even more important for the purposes of relief and long-term reconstruction is the need to understand the consequences of such demographic changes. How safe are women in crowded camps and settlements, when they are so outnumbered by men in several of the countries in question? Will widows in India have access to land once owned by their husbands? Will younger women enter into marriages with much older men, as already seems to be happening in some locations? And will this carry risks in terms of compromising their education and reproductive health? In the fishing communities of South India, what rights will surviving women enjoy under new arrangements and programmes? In whose names will newly built houses be registered? Will men take on new domestic roles, or will women's workloads increase?

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