The Sinhala Women’s Organsation is working with tsunami victims and for tsunami victims in Sri Lanka since January 2005. A chain of modest middle level projects are on-going making positive impact especially in the context of helping women and children, in Trincomalee and the southern coastal towns. Sri Lanka was the second worst affected country when the deadly tsunami waves struck on 26th December 2004.
The range of statistics vary from the national data collection to those of the international agencies and United Nations support bodies. From the moment catastrophe struck, international and local NGO s moved instantly. It brought out the humanitarian spirit and reflected national pride by the numbers of increasing volunteers who appeared in the national forefront. “Tsunami - a word none of us will ever forget ……………. We probably lost more children on 26th December than on any other day in the history of Sweden” was the comment when the Swedish government opened a Parliamentary debate on foreign affairs, on tsunami.
Sri Lanka statistics place over 35,000 dead, over 5000 missing, nearly half a million displaced. The tsunami stories are not over, though the new focus on elections could easily efface some of the most poignant memories. WHO, FAO, WFP, UNDP, UNHCR, soon became key players. ICRC, SL Red Cross, UNIFEM,UNESCO, RED CROSS, RED CRESCENT, instantly delivered goods and services, food and water. Others followed. First aid relief goods, truck loads of water, contraptions to desalination wells – all were brought in to complement the national efforts. Galle, a ghost town, put to darkness with scattered decomposed bodies buried under the rubble, boats and trawlers washed up to the main road, standing as silent sentinels are no more. Distribution of relief and welfare goods have stopped, temporary shelters have increased appeals, complaints and stories of suffering continue.
A new story unfolds
Refugees world wise had risen to over 27 million by 1995. Where do we stand about our own efforts? Is the “Tsunami focus” shifting away from the centre of attention? From human beings to election ideology, thereby hurting the dignity of these victims? The work carried out by NGO’s and by the state has been selective and slow. Women’s human rights are openly and explicitly denied. The situation demands not only a knowledge of what the problems are but also the personnel to implement them and how best to do so. Government must take the lead in identifying and eliminating the obstacles to help the gradual realization and enjoyment of such rights expeditiously. Our visits to Trincomalee, Matara and other coastal towns do not show a national plan of project activities and programmes of an intense nature at work with the aim of assisting speedily. Large numbers of women and children are turning to vagrancy and forced prostitution.
Hopelessness and despair is well reflected and proven if one stands with a team of workers at any point down the southern coastline. Hordes would surround you to tell their tales of woe and the insurmountable efforts they were called upon to make by rescuing victims from the waves, corpses brought ashore, and other tasks of bravery. Gunaratne of Hikkaduwa told how he saved 29 persons, virtually swimming against the waves with the victims on his back. He shows his temporary shelter with 6 children and asks ‘what do we get for all these risks – not even a permanent shelter, nor any allowance”. “We beg for our living from NGO’s or passers by. That too with indignity and insults”, says another, David is his name. In some areas common amenities do not exist, only a little privacy behind the rubble heaps or abandoned walls of damaged houses.
Natural disasters, usually experienced in the form of incapacitation, death and destruction results in relief distribution. Women and children survivors suffer most. “Gender awareness” or simply put, disregard about the special need of women and children make matters worse. In the common situation physical vulnerability, social vulnerability, attitudinal vulnerability which involve a combination of factors should be noted as helpful sub headings for planning in such disaster crisis. Special attention to extremely vulnerable groups, and relief distributions to such groups require special support system, in an organised manner. Internally displaced persons, elderly women, women with physical disabilities, widows, chronically ill women, women in subordinate cultural groups (viz. caste etc), low income groups women headed households etc call for classified registers to enable fair relief distribution. Many poverty stricken women of the above categories have told that they could no longer obtain relief they deserve due to discriminatory distribution under male domination. They request a more systematic method of relief distribution. Longer the period of waiting, greater will be the harm done.
Consequent to nine months of services to tsunami victims by NGOs and the state, in our estimation, providing permanent shelter and more opportunities to strengthen the livelihoods of these people take priority. Lack of access to basic production resources such as land, capital and other inputs kill initiative. Other link up factors are communication, knowledge, protection of family members, security of the home. No woman could commence small enterprise devoid of security in the home – for their family members.
Media reports say that Bank support regarding credit facilities to tsunami victims has become a contentious issue. Media says that tsunami victims cannot fulfil the demand for collateral – viz. a security pledge as a guarantee for repayment of loans. Unless banks make temporary amendments to such practise the opportunities for micro – enterprise for helpless tsunami victims would disappear. The term “vulnerability”, used especially in relation to women in the context of weakness, hopelessness and despair is not the correct usage. It refers to a set of factors and conditions that affect both sexes in regard to opportunities, ability, aspirations and more so, it prevents meting out the conditions for social justice to prevail. It is not merely the sate of being poor. Fair treatment of human beings and creating conducive conditions by NGOs and the State by co-ordinating an overall National plan to hold overcome such vulnerable conditions speedily becomes an absolute necessity.
A few case studies of Trincomalee resident tsunami women victims revealed a number of serious social and family problems during counselling sessions, and training workshops for setting up small enterprise and self employment ventures. 3-4 months after the tsunami catastrophe, indebtedness has increased, family stress and tensions have multiplied, divorce and separation pushed the family apart, school attendance affected, jewellery, radio sets, and other household items pawned. 20% of the women interviewed suffered suicidal tendency. The unexpected micro enterprise trainings conducted by for SWO tsunami victims had helped to restore hopes for their future. A drop in the ocean of tsunami victims. However, the more confidence gained for economic strengthening by training and credit societies the ripple effect created brings out hopes for the future. Both in Trinco and Matara the rapport with the victims has been excellent.
On the principal of “inclusion and “exclusion” more women get included and more men get excluded in counselling sessions. 90% of the women we came across revealed trauma symptoms and neurotic behaviour. Insomnia and hallucinations were also brought out as worrying conditions. The tendency for suicide had reached ‘affliction’ level. The need for counselling calls for excellent rapport between Councillor and Counselee, a closeness of mind and heart. Instances of rejection of counselling services surfaced as women pointed out that counselling by foreign visitors had not gained positive results. Clear techniques of communication had not fused due to the language barrier. Counsellors included, policy planners, disaster manages, trainers, researches, volunteer workers, would gain new insights if and when they possess an understating of the cultural milieu of the host country.
In response to the findings of the Review and Appraisal Committee meeting held at the 23rd Session of the General Assembly titled “Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the 21st century it forecasts increasing casualties and damages caused to women by natural disasters. It further raised awareness from a gender perspective, of the inefficiencies and inadequacies in responding to such emergency disasters. Identification and understanding of families, children kinship structure, communities, accepted social norms, and images of gender identity play an important role when seeking solutions to all aspects and problems natural disasters.
(The writer is President – Sinhala Women’s Organisation)