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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Friday, December 02, 2005

Women and ICT at Tsunami reconstruction

DO Channel - Homepage / MICT / MICT- MAY - JUNE: by Harsha Liyanage,
If utilised effectively, ICTs can cut short the process of re-establishment. e-Enability can reduce the gestation period of new businesses, create better networks for resource accessibility and help the local business persons in connecting with vibrant markets.

‘Treat mother as a living God at home’ is a maxim oft-repeated by Buddhist monks while advising the youth of Sri Lanka. It captures well the unique combination of compassion and strength that defines the very essence of a woman – often also signified through her comparison with Kali – the goddess of power. Though this force often remains buried under societal and familial mores and beliefs, when adversity strikes it always reinforces its existence, always.

In the last year’s Tsunami tragedy, the female mortality rates emerged to be three times higher than that of the men. When these statistics were analysed, logical explanations were sought. It was claimed that the number of women victims was higher as most of them stayed at home while the men went out to work. However, Noeleen Heyzer (Executive Director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women) refuted this opinion and is quoted by the Sunday Observer claiming that, “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.”(1)

As the giant tides returned, leaving devastated rubble all over the coast; women came to the forefront of rescue and rehabilitation missions. At temples, churches and kovils in Sri Lanka, putting their own grievances behind, they responded to situation by feeding and sheltering the starved children and men alike.

Such passionate engagement in the rehabilitation drive was not limited to the affected areas alone. Thousands of miles away, in countries like Canada, women organised fund raising dinners, charity functions and even volunteered to work in the disaster hit regions.

Women at relief operations

Lalitha, born in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, lost her parents during the early years of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Orphaned and alone, she ended up at a rehabilitation camp run by Sarvodaya and that marked her entry into the vocation of a peace worker. Today, she works with the Peace Secretariat of Sarvodaya, Head Quarters and leads campaigns in the very area where her family was massacred.

Lalitha’s story is a reflection of the millions of women who face atrocities, which rather than breaking down their spirits, transform them into stronger personalities. Rather than care-seekers, they become providers for the whole community. An instance from India is that of Bolangir (Orissa), where women forget the differences of caste and creed, to look after the children of migrant labourers, who venture into other Indian states in search of work. Every woman in the village who stays back is a mother for these kids (temporary orphans) and treats them as family till their real parents return, after a period of 4-6 months.

Women: vulnerable links in the relief chain?

However, none of these accounts imply that by being agents of relief, the women are removed from the threat of further exploitation. Reports from all the Tsunami affected countries highlight the fact that women victims formed the most vulnerable group at the IDP (internally displaced persons) relief camps. Women specific needs like separate toilet facilities, reproductive health requirements and contraceptives were rarely met at the male dominated IDP camps. Right after the Tsunami, high incidence of rape and abuse of women was reported. Heyzer has also highlighted the need for involving women in the major policy formulation processes for post tsunami reconstruction work, as it helps to incorporate their local expertise into upcoming schemes.(2) She also endorses the idea of delivering relief assistance through women wherever it is possible: the bank accounts to be opened in their names, so the men cannot waste the relief donations to consume alcohol; listen to women when road, water tanks and housing schemes are being planned.

Commitment to such policy guidelines would be an effective way to integrate the untapped potential of women to the mainstream development force. Time and again, international women leaders have emphasized the hidden potential of women to become community change agents. In Sri Lanka, over 6000 women teachers teach over 150,000 children annually at the pre-schools run by Sarvodaya. Fifty five per cent of the youth in Sarvodaya Peace Corps (Shanti Sena) programme are females, who deliver first aid and relief services.

Micro-credit programmes in South Asia recognize women as key agents for economic change and operate through them. The well known Cellular Women project of Bangladesh is a good example of women’s mobility and leadership capacity for a persistent change. Women are the key recipients (approximately 60 per cent) of micro-credit offered by SEEDS (Sarvodaya Economic Enterprise Development Services) programme in Sri Lanka.

ICTs: strengthening women’s leadership

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) possess an almost magical power to excite the human mind. It can simultaneously entertain and give invaluable information to the recipient. Technology also makes physical and temporal differences irrelevant. As such, ICTs also possess the potential of diminishing gender inequities and can integrate women with mainstream development activities and outcomes. A variety of ICT projects that aim to empower women are already underway in many parts of the world. One hopes that a cross-fertilisation of the information created by such projects would generate a wider positive impact.

However, statistics indicate that there is far greater participation by men in the ICT projects than by women. Addressing this imbalance will require gender sensitive policies. For instance, managers of ICT enabled telecentres may require more training to encourage gender conscious participation; business accounts may be incorporated with gender columns which may track the gender balance along with economic turnovers. Telecentres can fix dedicated women-only time slots to attract those housewives who are willing to participate in such initiatives. Women-specific content, both web based and static, will also encourage female participation.

Illiteracy acts as a major barrier to women’s access to technology in many parts of the world. In India, Action Aid’s ‘REFLECT for ICT ’project employs a variety of ‘Forum Theatre’ approaches to break this barrier. Trained theatre artists from the same localities perform at local communities to introduce project elements. Even as they are being entertained, the illiterate women slowly begin to recognise the underlying messages; the potentials and opportunities presented by the new technologies.

A pilot research conducted for Information and Communication Technology Agency, (ICTA-Sri Lanka) by Sarvodaya for testing the potential of subsidy vouchers in promoting community participation at telecentres, gave very promising results. As the community became more accepting towards the idea of a telecentre, the promise of vouchers increased female participation from 8 per cent to 40 per cent within a three week period. In fact, the number of women participants bypassed that of the males.

ICT: relief operations

The Internet played an important role in decentralising relief operations during the Tsunami disaster. In the Internet, the relief workers found an effective mode to put their appeals before of the world community. Similarly, web based payment gateways provided a chance to the world community to pick and chose the charities they wanted to donate to.

The ICTA of Sri Lanka, adopted an innovative approach during post-Tsunami relief work. The organization opened Nana-Salas (e-libraries), a type of minitelecentre, at the main IDP camps to provide free ICT access to the victims. The IDP campers found a constructive way to spend their time, by learning computers, airing their grievances, accessing global responses, and sometimes continuing the search for their beloved ones.

The ICTA telecenters also contributed towards the relief operations by providing ICT access for damage assessment, registration of those injured, inventorying donations, and supporting logistical coordination with other organisations. Now as the rehabilitation and reconstruction process is underway, women entrepreneurs who had lost all their belongings, are beginning to rebuild their operations. According to the UN, rebuilding local economies is a quick way to recovery in these lost lands. If utilised effectively, ICTs can cut short the process of re-establishment. e-enability can reduce the gestation period of new businesses, create better networks for resource accessibility and help the local business persons in connecting with vibrant markets.

End notes

1 http://servesrilanka.blogspot.com/2005/05/ womens-role-in-post-tsunami.html
2 http://servesrilanka.blogspot.com/2005/05/ womens-role-in-post-tsunami.html

Author: Harsha Liyanage is an independent consultant (ICT for Development and Community Development Projects) and is presently based in London, UK.

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