"Women are the real heroines of the December 26 tsunami. They showed immense courage and revealed new inner strengths in surmounting the overwhelming obstacles they faced in their efforts to save both themselves and their families during the sea invasion that destroyed their homes, families and livelihoods.
These new inner strengths are a rich and valuable human resource which should be tapped for future programs in the post tsunami recovery process or they will be lost forever- simply because this positive role of women during the tsunami has yet to be recognised at the highest levels of policy making and resource allocation decisions."
That was Dr Noeleen Heyzer, the UNDP's champion on gender issues and Executive Director of the United Nations' Development Fund for Women talking to the Sunday Observer in an exclusive interview, shortly after addressing a large gathering of women (and men) who packed the auditorium of the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute to participate in a consultative meeting on tsunami Relief and Recovery last week.
She stressed that as, "Women have made such a significant contribution to their community affected by the tsunami, they should be made key players in the post tsunami recovery process as well, by bringing them to the negotiating table at the highest policy making levels, allowing them to express their ideas and opinions on all the decisions concerning the welfare of their families, in resource allocations for infrastructure, for re-building and re-construction of houses, schools, roads, and on programs regarding their future livelihoods.
It is only by listening to what they say that at all stages of the recovery process, can we ensure that the resource allocations reach the right places and benefit the survivors of the tsunami as a whole."
Drawing from her own 'ground level' observations, Dr Heyzer noted that there was a, 'huge gap between policy rhetoric and what was actually happening at ground level.' "When I visited Acheh after the tsunami, I was able to observe the courageous role played by women during and after the tsunami.
I found that the reason why more women had died in the tsunami than men was not because they were reluctant to expose their nakedness when the turbulent sea waters tore the clothes from their bodies as some people believe, or because they were unable to climb trees (many of them did and saved their lives in the process).
It was because they CARED. The women who died in the sea invasion had gone back to their homes to save the lives of their children, rescue their husbands, relatives and friends who were being washed away by the sea. This is why I call them the real heroines of the tsunami."
It would be a great tragedy if this valuable Human Resource was lost because their strengths were not recognised and tapped in the post tsunami recovery process." Referring to the views expressed by the women participants at the Consultative Meeting, she said, "Now that we have heard their voices at last, we need to put their comments into one coherent voice that will be heard at the highest level of the hierarchy and translate these opinions and suggestions to ACTION. To this end we may have to set up hot lines and separate Desks at district level and work out other strategies as well."
"Women's voices are at the heart of the post tsunami recovery process," she stressed. "After a disaster of this nature, those affected need to re-weave the whole fabric of life before there is any recovery. Women play a significant role in this re-weaving process."
Dr Heyzer also noted that the tsunami crisis sat on two other crises: Poverty and Conflict, both of which have largely affected women. "So in any recovery process it is important to look at the impact of these two crises on women as well, and bring women's voices to the negotiating table whether it is to promote peace or to distribute donor aid," she stressed.
She also gave the following women-friendly guidelines to help create a better life for the tsunami survivors so that they may move on from Despair to Hope of a better future.
* Involve women when re-building their homes to make them family oriented.
* Since ownership of land is very important to women especially in Batticaloa where the land is inherited by daughters, give women the ownership of all new houses in such districts.
* Consult women when building new roads so that they can have easy access to markets, schools, banks and other frequently visited places by women.
* Safe water, electricity and access to safe sanitation in temporary shelters are also women's concerns and they should have a voice in the erection of these facilities, she insists.
She reiterated that when aid resources are being allocated women should be in the frontline among the recipients. "It is they who are managing the family budgets and caring for the children who now include newly orphaned children of other women.
Instead of the aid grants being given to the women, they are now being given to the men because they are traditionally recognised as household heads, who in turn waste it on alcohol and cigarettes. The same applies to bank accounts, which should be opened in the name of the woman in the house and not the man, or as a joint account," she said.
Commenting on activities relating to Recovery and Re-construction in the tsunami affected areas, she said that such activities including the passing of new laws must thus address a) the urgent needs of the present b) the injustices of the past and c) prevent the emergence of new injustices and inequalities d) Shelter.
She also emphasised the importance of addressing the issues of poverty and conflict which the tsunami had compounded. "I've worked a lot in the area of Development and Security and realised that there can be no security with development and vice versa," she pointed out.
The women survivors of the tsunami were not prepared to take a back seat in decisions regarding their future and that of their families.
"The women I have met in the areas I visited shortly after I arrived in Sri Lanka, have clearly indicated to me that they do not wish to be seen as 'victims' of the tsunami, but rather as part of the solution to the recovery process.
This means that they want their contribution to society to be recognised and valued." With over twenty years of working with women all over the world, Dr. Heyzer has found that, "Women are the most affected whether in conflict situations, or during a natural calamity or because of poverty. We can address all these issues effectively only by making them participants rather than passive recipients or victims.
At the end, it is the common voice of women heard at the highest policy making levels, that will enable us to achieve our goals of Development, Security and Peace."