Three months have passed since the tsunami catastrophe devastated the lives and the properties of the coastal population of the island. The tsunami was not only unprecedented and unexpected, but also did not discriminate on the basis of age, sex, religion or socio-economic status. The poor and rich, old and young, men and women all had to undergo the same dreadful experience of death and loss of loved ones and belongings.
That is not all. The fear of earthquakes and tsunamis still haunt the minds of people living in the coastal areas and it, now, appears to be a lifetime threat.
Like any other disaster, the impact of the tsunami was felt differently by different sections of society. And it created an enormous challenge to communities, civil society groups, development agencies and the Government. Numerous agencies and individuals have attended to the immediate relief measures while a massive reconstruction and rehabilitation process has also begun.
With international and local aid coming in and volunteers rushing to offer their services, the priorities have shifted beyond relief to reconstruction and rehabilitation. Despite good intentions in rehabilitation work, there is always the risk of certain issues being neglected.
For instance, gender - addressing women's issues in disasters - is a key area where there will be gaps unless given specific attention.
Although disasters create unfortunate situations for both men and women, the negative effect on women can be different due to their socially assigned vast roles and responsibilities.
Women, usually take an active part in community disaster response initiatives in many communities and countries. They certainly play a lead role in such processes. But, unfortunately, women are rarely represented and sometimes markedly absent in decision-making processes in Sri Lanka.
Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), an organisation working on gender issues (and many other development programs) says that none of the post tsunami assessments done so far by various institutions, has addressed or tackled gender issues adequately.
"Many international and local development organisations have carried out post tsunami damage and needs assessments. But they have not looked into the gender issue.
There is extremely limited gender-specific information and analysis on the role of women in the damaged economic sectors such as fishery, tourism and agriculture," a spokesperson for ITDG said.
She added that the reconstruction and rehabilitation interventions address the basic needs common to all, varying from shelter, food and medical assistance. "But the attention is poor when it comes to issues specific to women such as security and safety, hygienic conditions and need for legal services," she stressed.
There should be more gender-sensitive programs to help women and girls who survived the tsunami. Women survivors have already undergone many traumas due to extra family burdens created by the calamity. Women are more vulnerable to post disaster issues and the relief and reconstruction efforts must meet their specific needs and entitlements, she said.
The security and safety factor should be taken up with much care, as many women have suddenly found themselves the heads of households. "Previously they would have had well secured homes, in the presence of their husbands and fathers. Now that they (husbands and fathers) have gone with the water. Women need lots of support to rebuild their families and communities," the spokesperson said.
On our visits to several tsunami affected areas over the last three months we noticed the courage with which the distressed women have to continue their lives with the remaining few resources. Some have lost their children, some husbands, others everything. But they had much courage to go on.
Women, by nature, live with such courage. In a crisis situation, they have an amazing ability to come to terms with their woes.
"Many women whom we met at different camps told us that they want to get on with life. They were no longer prepared to sob and weep over the unfortunate incidents. However, they sought Government and organisational help to rebuild their lives and families. Secured housing was their main concern.
This is where the gender-sensitive programs should come in, according to ITDG. "Women have to be guaranteed equal access to resources, a right to security and freedom from violence - coupled with the right to gain access to land, the ownership, of which is often in the husband's name."
Ignorance of gender differences leads to insensitive and ineffective operations that largely bypass women's needs and their potential to contribute to disaster relief and rebuilding activities.
"Considering these facts, we believe that the Government and NGO officials working with the affected people would recognise and address gender issues and look into special needs of women," the ITDG spokesperson said.
As a prelude to promote this concept among the decision-makers and officials concerned, ITDG introduced a video called 'Facing Disasters, Making decisions - Gender dimensions in disaster management' in Colombo this week. With the launch of the video, ITDG hopes to continue their campaign, highlighting the importance of gender issues in the wake of tsunami rebuilding.