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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. 

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Still caught up in the tsunami's net

The Age: 24/12/2005"

More women than men died when the waves unleashed their wrath on Sri Lanka. A year later, Farah Farouque finds a fragile nation and a rewritten social order that has brought hope and emancipation to some women but increased the burden on others.

In dresses billowing to their ankles for modesty, the fisherwomen of the east coast of Sri Lanka are not textbook feminists. But by venturing out in their own canoes on this fine morning they are challenging ancient village rules about the role of men and women. As she prepares to cast her net for prawns, Vinodini, 23, revels in her new situation. "I have a much freer life than my mother," she says. "It was a kind of a dream for us to do it. Now it's a possibility - I can go to the lagoon whenever I want."

Before the tsunami, the division of labour was simply stated in Thiruperunthurai, the Tamil village where Vinodini and her mother were born into fishing families. The men went out in canoes; women looked after children and picked up casual jobs. A few older females broke the rules and fished, but power, symbolised in ownership of the boats, remained the preserve of men.

When tectonic plates deep under the Indian Ocean shifted on Boxing Day last year, they unleashed killer waves that claimed more than 225,000 lives across a dozen countries. The reverberations went even beyond loss of lives, homes and livelihoods. A year on in Sri Lanka, the social dynamic of affected coastal communities has also begun to change, sometimes in profound ways.

In Thiruperunthurai (population 300), Vinodini and her business partner, Easwery, 46, have been crewing their own fishing vessel for many months now. They have been able to finance the boat through a loan scheme set up by Oxfam to help women whose family livelihoods were ruined by the tsunami.

Fishing communities like theirs were badly affected right along the coastline: nationwide, 15,300 fishing boats and a million nets were destroyed.

Now, the emancipation of Vinodini and her neighbours - there are about a dozen women crewing canoes in their village alone - has had a knock-on effect on their families. The women are bringing in more money with which to buy food. With any excess they can indulge in luxuries such as books for their children.

Vinodini's fisherman husband, Raju - who does not yet own a boat - thinks the new job offers real opportunity to advance the family. When she sails off in the morning and afternoon, her mother minds her three-year-old son, Lakshman. Echoing the near-universal desire of working mothers, Vinodini states her intention to balance her work and family life, even if she has more children.

"I am my own employee. I have flexibility," she says.

'TSUNAMI" was not part of the local vocabulary in Sri Lanka until December 26, 2004. Now, the word is imprinted on the national psyche, representing the destruction of 80,000 homes and nearly 40,000 lives.

Soon afterwards it became evident across the region that more women and girls had died than men and boys. In Sri Lanka, the fatalities involving women were as high as 70 per cent. "When you think of the tsunami itself, you can only think of women," says survivor Jayanthi.

Oxfam has described the unequal impact as the "gendering of the storm".

"This has had an impact on the dynamics of the community, there has been more sexual harassment than ever before and women are caring for more children in extended families," says Nalini Kasynathan, who runs Oxfam's program in Sri Lanka. "The burden on women has increased."

Was there rhyme or reason to this phenomenon? Aid workers suggest more women and girls perished for reasons partly related to cultural context. Many more men than women, for example, knew how to swim. Women, despite living close to the sea, most often did not.

Men were also more practised in climbing trees, a common escape method from the waves. Young girls who lost their clothes as the sea came, it is said, were also sometimes too embarrassed to run naked from the grasp of the waves and drowned. Other women and girls became trapped as they tried to run and their long hair was caught in debris.

Yet others could not outpace the sea, especially if they ran inland while they were loaded up with children or were trying to help elderly dependants. More women than men were also indoors when the waves intruded on them that Sunday morning.

In a rare breach of the code of silence surrounding discussions of sexual abuse, a group of women gather at a meeting on the east coast and speak of harrowing stories they have heard of young women being sexually harassed, and even raped, in the tsunami's aftermath.

They allege such incidents had even occurred in the apparent safety of some refugee camps. No one who spoke could produce hard evidence to support the allegations, but one woman was pragmatically poignant: "Girls survived by not sharing their stories."

A YEAR on, is the loss of loved ones eased by time and the practicalities of day-to-day living? Husbands left behind are remarrying, sometimes, it is reported, taking much younger women as wives. It is not a question of romance, protests labourer E. Ajit, 35, a Sinhala man who lost his wife, Suneethra, 25, and remarried two months ago at the urging of his family. "My new wife helps me look after my children."

Already, the two youngsters appear to be adjusting to the change, says Ajit. They call his new wife "Amma" - Sinhalese for mother.

In an unforgiving scrap of land controlled by the secessionist Tamil Tigers in the east, Tamil woman Parimala Negenthiram lists her family's losses. There were 26 in all, she says: they included her grandmother, a niece and three sisters-in-law. The grieving has been exhausting. "If the tsunami came again, we should all die," she says.

A third of Sri Lanka's tsunami dead were children. One of them was Jenusia, aged two, who was adored by her family.

Her mother, Mary, now lives with her stonemason husband and two surviving children, a boy and a girl, in a temporary shelter built from timber sourced in Australia. The house, built by Oxfam, has a thatched roof for insulation and is located in an expanse of temporary shelters in the Batticaloa district. This is one of the neediest regions in Sri Lanka, because it has been beset by war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the state, and now they are subject to this natural disaster.

Predictably, Mary and her family will have to wait some time for the permanent house they have been promised. Despite a surge of foreign aid, the construction of permanent homes has been painfully slow, bogged in layers of bureaucracy and the Government's arbitrary imposition of coastal "buffer zones", which ban building of houses on certain land close to the sea.

While the relief effort was regarded as a good response overall, some remark on the inexperience of some lesser-known NGOs in the field. People still laugh about the European group that tried to distribute cold-weather Christmas hampers to tsunami victims. More seriously, politicians in Colombo, including the new President, are accused of setting up their own personal charities to further political rather than humanitarian ends.

The provision of permanent shelter remains the most vexed issue. After 11 months, just 1126 replacement homes had been completed and another 15,619 are under construction - far short of the tens of thousands needed.

Mary's family, who lost most of their material possessions, are satisfied with their transitional accommodation. A year on, they have the basics, even a little vegetable patch attached to the shelter. Her husband has also found work.

Emotionally, however, she is still traumatised. When the tsunami struck, Mary was at home with her two youngest children. She saw the water rising, summoned all her courage and carried her daughters, Jenusia and six-year-old Devasalomi, running as fast as she could with her precious load.

It wasn't fast enough. The first wave outpaced them and they were dragged into the surf. In the cold confusion of that moment, mother and children became separated. Soon afterwards, Mary found her older daughter stuck to a fence. She was saved. Jenusia, however, was lost.

When Mary returned the next day to search again, she found the little one's crumpled body.

She remains haunted by that death. A devout Catholic who has hung a picture of the Vatican prominently in the shelter, even her faith cannot sustain her all the time. "I can't forget my loss, that will never be until I die," Mary says.

In the village of Siharam, they wait anxiously for a peace dividend after the tsunami. In one swoop, the tsunami killed almost half as many people as three decades of war and terror. Amid the goodwill generated in the immediate aftermath of Boxing Day, the promise of a permanent settlement to ethnic troubles seemed enhanced.

In this ethnically divided nation, locals seemed to have put aside their differences, helping each other as never before. But long-term peace has turned out to be elusive.

Sri Lanka's recent history has been a bloodstained one, with a wearying civil struggle in the north and east waged by Tamil separatists against the Sinhala majority since the mid 1970s.

A ceasefire is technically in place. But peace talks that broke down last year after the Tamil Tigers refused to give up their demand for what amounted to self-rule have yet to be restarted.

The prospects for compromise were further muddied last month by the election of hawkish new President Mahinda Rajapakse, who won with just over 50 per cent of the vote after the Tigers instructed Tamils in the north and east to boycott the election. An agreement, involving the Tigers, to distribute tsunami aid in the north-east has also come under challenge from minority parties espousing a virulent Sinhalese nationalism.

There has been much talk recently of the prospect of a return to full-scale war. In the past few weeks, an epidemic of violence and unrest has exploded in disputed areas. Mid-year, the foreign minister, a Tamil, was assassinated in his fortified compound in Colombo. Police have blamed the Tigers.

Yet even the separatists fight with each other now. The enigmatic Tiger leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, has been skirmishing since last year with one of his former top commanders, Karuna, who is seeking his own patch of control in the east, separate from the northern-based Tiger hierarchy and the Government in Colombo.

Sandwiched in this side battle are the people of Siharam who are Tamil-speaking Muslims, descendants of Moorish traders, who have no desire to be part of an independent Tamil dominion of any complexion. In the 1990s, when large slabs of the east had come under Tiger control, these villagers were were forced out of their traditional lands. The catalyst for the exodus, the residents say, was a mosque attack that killed more than 100 men and boys while they were engaged in evening prayer. The once-prosperous village dispersed and many resettled in a coastal area, within 200 metres of the shoreline. On Boxing Day their settlement was once again plunged into despair.

In the aftermath of this disaster, many took the decision to return to the original inland village. Although they own the land legally, no permanent construction work has been approved by the local bureaucracy. The villagers understand that to mean that if they rebuild, the Tigers will exact another bloody price.

But they stay defiantly on. Many have undertaken their own construction. Asks one woman: "What else can we do?" Another man wryly observes: "Politics in Sri Lanka is a peculiar sort of politics."

It is afternoon, and Vinodini of the billowing dress is back in her canoe, off to retrieve her nets. She has high expectations: the prawns have been prolific of late. In other places, too, poor fisher folk have returned to the water in new boats donated to replace vessels that were destroyed.

Some locals have raised the prospect of overfishing.

For Vinodini and her neighbours, however, the deadly tsunami has brought a new way of living. There is hope, after all, for a better way forward after experiencing the extremity of nature's cruelty.

Reporter Farah Farouque and photographer Jason South travelled to tsunami-affected areas of Sri Lanka partly courtesy of Oxfam Australia.

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