Friday, March 6, 2009

Remembering Tsunami: Consequences of natural disaster for women

F1030001It has been four years since Tsunami struck 14 out of 28 districts Sri Lanka, and the southern and south-eastern coast of India. It destroyed a large number of areas, diverse forms of living beings, livelihoods and much more. In India, it has severely affected Andaman and Nicobar Islands; Nagapattinam, Cuddalore and Kanyakumari districts in Tamil Nadu; Nellore, Prakasham, Guntur and Krishna districts in Andhra Pradesh; Karaikal in Pondichery; and Kollam and Alappuzha districts in Kerala.

Tsumani has been unprecedented in many ways but natural disasters are frequent in Sri Lanka and India. Natural disasters, for a long time, were treated as a matter of material fix up job – it was considered sufficient to provide shelter and amenities and at the most, bring some work to the affected people. Over a period, it has been realized that natural disasters present gender specific challenges to women. Notwithstanding critics of the Tsunami response programmes, it is appreciable that the agencies involved recognized the emotional and psychological distress people affected by disasters suffer and took some measures to minimize dangers to girls and women’s safety. Trafficking in human beings, especially children and among them girls has been given special recognition.

So far, I have not come across any study from India which talks about violence against women (VAW) in Tsunami affected districts. But reports like UNDP’s sitrep 29 and Oxfam’s reports from Sri Lanka suggest that there has been a rise in VAW since the onset of Tsunami. It would not be surprising if VAW has increased in Tsunami affected Indian districts too. Gender relations between women and men in these districts have been such that despite being earning members of their families, women have been dependent on men. All forms of violence including VAW connected as it is to power equations, in frustrating and depressive times is more likely to be perpetrated against those who have the least power to protest or retaliate.

Reports from Nagapattinam district in Tamil Nadu, India as recorded in a study, Gender and Tsunami Relief and Rehabilitation, conducted in March 2005 by the Womankind Worldwide suggest that single women and women headed households have not been able to meet basic needs. Most of the families in the affected districts of Tamil Nadu, India are dependent on fishing. Men from these families catch fish, while women are engaged in diving to collect pearl, prawn farming and marketing of fish. Women are not recognized as fisherwomen. Any relief and reconstruction measure which identifies and supports affected people on the basis of occupations is bound to miss out people who are engaged in unrecognized occupations or those whose contributions to the concerned occupation is not recognized. The destruction of prawn farms, salt-making areas, fish markets, and equipments which women use in their occupations has affected their capacity to provide for their families very badly.

In both Sri Lanka and India, women are the primary carers in their families. Most natural disasters invariably mean evacuation and living in congested temporary shelters. Women experience an expansion of their household responsibilities and increased stress after a disaster. With the source of family income destroyed and the trying conditions of a temporary settlement, women face the challenge of providing food and water for their families.

Women in general in both countries are not only responsible for their own health but also for the health needs of the family members, especially children. Spread of diseases means a weakening of their own capacity to care for others but their responsibility to care for sick family members increases sharply. The increase in the intensity of this responsibility is made more difficult due to the destruction of the primary health care centres and other health facilities.

As mentioned earlier, women’s livelihoods in Tsunami affected areas have tended to be dependent on natural resources and on the produce brought home by men. Tsunami has destroyed natural resources and consequently women’s sources of income. Currently, some efforts are being made to give unconventional skills to women so that they could begin from a new base. But it is not clear yet, how much resources and efforts will be extended to build the infrastructure and the base which would help women gain and maximize benefits from their recently acquired skills. If this is not done and the traditional means of livelihoods are not revived with women in a good position to advance their interests, there would be fewer job opportunities for women in the future.

Tsunami, however, also presents the opportunity to re-conceive and reshape ownership of assets and property. But these opportunities have not been taken advantage of by the relief and reconstruction agencies. Most of them have tended to keep away from issues involving rearticulation of gender relations. Some NGOs, however, have tried to alter gender based occupational patterns and asset ownership practices.

Tsunami relief and reconstruction has also highlighted the need to give equal participation and decision-making opportunities to women. An observation paper, WatSan in Kargil Nagar Through a Gender Lense, on water and sanitation facilities in Kargil Nagar in Chennai, India highlights how siting and design of shelter and shelter facilities like toilet and washing facilities could become unusable in the absence of local and need based knowledge. It also shows that poor management planning and management of the water and sanitation facilities could become a threat to health of the people.

It would be a mistake to attribute shortfalls of disaster preparedness, mitigation and reconstruction programme only to the shortage of resources and urgency of the response. The human element is equally if not more important in the giving a shape and direction to a response programme. Gender sensitive attitude and knowledge of gender issues and gender relations, and the capacity to analyze the impact of a particular disaster on women in the immediate and long run among those who are responsible for disaster related programmes are prerequisites to an egalitarian programme. If the prerequisites are present, there would be a greater possibility of people making efforts to devote sufficient time, involve women in the programmes, and get adequate funding to meet and highlight women specific needs.

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