Sunday, April 03, 2005

Tsunami and Women

We all know that far too many people died in the violent tsunami of last December. What may not be so well known is that the dead were predominantly women. A study by Oxfam International, done in villages in Indonesia, estimates that three times as many women as men were killed there. Some villages had only women die, and in one village the ratio of men to women is now ten to one.

Something similar happened in India where three women died for each man and also in Sri Lanka where most of the survivors in the camps are men.

Why this sex disparity? Were more men saved because of their greater average strength? Because they were better swimmers or could climb trees more quickly? Perhaps. But other effects were in play, too, including pure chance:

On the Indian coast many women were waiting for the fishermen to return with their catches, while in Batticaloa on the east coast of Sri Lanka, the tsunami hit at the exact moment many of the women were taking baths in the sea.

Because it was a Sunday, most of the women in Aceh were at home with the children rather than at work.

Many of the men were either carrying out errands or in their boats out at sea where the waves were less ferocious.

Or are these examples of pure chance? Surely sex roles have an impact on who would be waiting on the beach for the fishing boats to return or who would be at home with the children. Sex roles and restrictions had an even more obvious impact on the excess death rate of Sri Lankan women:

The hardest part of Supini's story is the death of her mother. More than a month later, she still chokes through her tears as she recalls the way her 36-year-old mother disappeared.

"The water came with a huge force, moving like an angry monster across the sand and into the home. My mother helped my younger brother to tear of his shorts to swim away, but she didn't follow. She was just too modest to remove her clothes to escape," says Supini.

Modesty is highly valued in women in this area and inculcated in them from early childhood onwards. Tragically, the concept of modesty also demands that women are not taught how to swim.

Closely associated with modesty is the idea of proper female dress. In the affected areas of Sri Lanka this means traditional saris: a long piece of cloth wrapped around the body, and long hair for women. Both of these caused tsunami deaths:

Fernando, who has worked for years with rural women, says that most of the village women who drowned in the huge wave were wearing traditional saris that restricted them from running and also weighed them down when they became water logged after the sea swept into their homes.
Volunteers cleaning the areas also report several deaths in which women appeared to have been pinned by the long hair to broken rubble.

Isn't it odd how all these little facts, trivial in themselves, somehow add up to something huge and horrible?

That the traditional roles for women would make them less able to fight for their lives is not unexpected. Anything that encourages passivity, weakness and modesty will not help when a tsunami strikes. Add this to the lesser average strength of women and the fact that many mothers were carrying small children which made running or swimming almost impossible and it is easy to see why a seemingly neutral natural catastrophy would reap many more female victims.

What are the consequences from this to the affected areas? The Oxfam International study in Indonesia found:

...that even the women who survived suffered from the tsunami, many pushed into early marriages because of the relatively few women left.


Those in the emergency shelter told of physical and verbal harassment from the men and fear of sexual abuse.

Becky Buell, from Oxfam, said: "The tsunami has dealt a crushing blow to women and men across the region. In some villages it now appears that up to 80% of those killed were women.

"This disproportionate impact will lead to problems for years to come unless everyone working on the aid effort addresses the issue now.

"We are already hearing about rapes, harassment and forced early marriages. We all need to wake up to this issue and ensure the protection, inclusion and empowerment of the women that have survived."

Then there is the problem of taking care of the surviving children. In some of the tsunami-stricken areas the fathers are not trained in how to care for their children, and there will not be enough women left to help all of them.
This post was inspired by one by Linnet.