Women and the Tsunami: Challenging Cultural Norms

Since the tragic Asian tsunami, NGOs around the world have had a serious concern about the female victims who were affected. Most notably Oxfam International recently put out a briefing, noting the devastating effects were impacted by cultural mores. The reports sums up that if the gender roles were maybe distributed differently, there probably wouldn't have been as many women that perished. In the hardest hit countries of Indonesia, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka, as many as 80% of the female population in many villages was lost.

According to Oxfam, "some causes of these patterns are similar: Women across the region 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 are important: Women in Aceh have a high level of participation in the labor force, but the wave struck on a Sunday when they were at home and the men were out running errands away from the seashore. Many women in India were waiting on the shore for fishermen to bring in their catch, which the women would then process and sell in the local market. In Sri Lanka’s Batticaloa District, the tsunami hit during the time when women usually took their baths in the sea."

"Even more important for the purpose of relief and long-term reconstruction is to understand the consequences of such demographic changes. How safe are women in crowded camps and settlements when they are so outnumbered by men? Will widows in India have access to land once owned by their husbands? Are younger women going to enter into marriages with much older men, as they are starting to do in some
locations? And will this trend compromise their education and reproductive health? In the fishing communities of South India, what rights will surviving women enjoy under new arrangements and programs? In whose names will the newly built houses be registered? Will men taking on new domestic roles or will women’s workloads

Men and their status have also been affected. Men lose self-esteem as a consequence of not being able to support their families in the aftermath of disaster. Valli, from Pudukuppam village in Cuddalore, now looks after the two young daughters of her brother, Palaniappan. Palaniappan, 26, committed suicide after saying
he could not cope with the children and a jobless life after his wife was washed away
by the tsunami: 'Palani was extremely distressed after the loss of his wife and would often sit alone
wondering what he would do without a job and with two small girls to feed and marry
off. But we never thought he would go to such extremes.'"says Valli in the report.

But in most cases, the most disadvantaged people will still be women.

The most immediate issue is the short term survival of women in the temporary camps. Many of these shelters are not equipped with the most basic needs to protect the dignity of a woman, such as a privacy in the camps for clothes change and medical examinations. There has also been reports of sexual abuses by their male counterparts in the latrine areas because of the lack of security.

Another big problem is the issue of widowed women not being able to collect insurance money for their deceased husbands. Many women are losing their homes because the deed is in the deceased husband's name. This problem is exacerbated by women not receiving the equal pay their male counterparts make at their jobs. In these case many women might become vulnable to sex exploitation, as the pay would be seen as attractive for many who are suddenly the breadwinners in their households. In other cases young women are forced by their surviving family members to marry older men to maintain a financial status.

While the problems of these women are not going to be solved overnight because of larger cultural issues, not even by this author, there are somethings being done to help the women in the long term and breakdown some of the taboos.

A group of women in Sri Lanka are learning how to swim. The culture in Sri Lanka prevents mixed bathing in the few public swimming pools which do exist - most of which are in the capital Colombo - so opportunities for women have been almost non-existent. If more of these women knew how to swim, many more of their lives could have been saved.

"We could never go into the sea in our swimming costumes anyway, we have to go fully clothed, so it's impossible to swim," explains Pushpa Kodippila, 43, a mother of two, in a BBC report.

The only problem here is the lack of female swim teachers. The program is being run by Christine Fonfe, a British swimming teacher, who felt after the tsunami, that this was the chance to change cultural attitudes. So, she is bringing some Sri Lankan women to England to get certified in swimming so they will come back home to give swimming lessons to the native women. Eventually, Ms Fonfe says that their Sri Lankan government wants to run this program, but is very skeptical of this.

"There's been talk of it in the papers, but they want to charge parents for the privilege. It's something of a paradox that so many people live by the sea, but never have the chance to learn to swim," said Ms. Fonfre in the report.


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