When Cyclone Nargis struck the coast of Myanmar in May 2008, many women lost their lives. Others were left vulnerable - without family, incomes, livelihoods, homes or assets, and little access to quality sexual and reproductive health care or psychosocial support services.
To understand the impact of Cyclone Nargis on women living in Cyclone Nargis-affected areas, and to respond to the ongoing demands for data on women's protection issues in the most affected townships, the Women's Protection Technical Working Group and the Department of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement (DSW), facilitated a comprehensive assessment of women's protection issues in cyclone-affected areas. The ultimate purpose of the exercise was to provide baseline information on women's protection issues for humanitarian actors responding to the disaster. In order to verify the initial data, a complementary assessment was completed by an independent research group in December 2009. An important catalyst for the process was the DSW's objective to develop a Plan of Action for Women's Protection in Emergencies.
The key findings show that one of the most significant impacts of cyclone Nargis, was the change in household composition, with approximately 14 out of every 100 households being headed by women, the majority of these being widows. The assessments indicate that female-headed households are most vulnerable, both in terms of poverty and protection concerns. Sixty percent of female-headed households live in unsatisfactory shelters, female-headed households make-up the highest percentage of the low income groups, and children from female-headed households frequently drop out of school due to financial constraints.
When asked what kind of support women need most, focus group discussion participants stated that livelihood support was the key to helping women recover and build a sustainable future. According to the initial assessment, it is common for female workers to earn two-thirds the salary of their male counterparts. More than 80% of the respondents in the complementary assessment said that they were in debt, having received loans from relatives and friends.
One of the key protection issues for girls and women that emerged during the assessments is the perceived increase in the number of women engaging in sex for money, food or favours. Respondents also noticed an increase in alcohol and drug use, domestic violence, verbal abuse, and occurrences of violence, all of which are forms of or contributing factors to gender - based violence.
The assessments also highlighted a critical need for raising awareness about protection issues for both women and men, with approximately 60% of respondents lacking awareness on women's security or protection issues. A need for increased HIV/AIDS awareness is also indicated, as data revealed that 80% of respondents did not believe they were at risk of contracting HIV. While exploring the use of birth spacing methods, the use of condoms was found to be 2.1% in the assessment areas.
Eighteen months after Cyclone Nargis, the complementary assessment showed that the majority of female respondents still felt sad, depressed, or hopeless. However, two-thirds of total respondents also believed that women were carrying out their daily activities in the same way as before Cyclone Nargis, and that there was an increase in community unity. Female elders, friends and community leaders were identified as primary proviers of support to women.