waves of discrimination

Newsletter Jan-Apr 2005

The massive tsunami that struck on 26th December 2004, killed more than 2,20,000 people in 12 countries spanning South-East Asia and South Asia and had an impact right up to East Africa. Besides the thousands dead, injured and disabled, the Red Cross estimates that more than 1.6 million people have been displaced. Relief was immediate, and spontaneously poured in from all over the world, and massive rehabilitation efforts are still underway. It will take many months, if not years, for normalcy to return. A precarious existence continues, demonstrated with the quake that shook Sumatra just three months later on the 28th of March, and left hundreds more dead.

Death Has A Feminine Gender

A disturbing fact that has emerged is that the tsunami has had a differential impact on women. The figures are stark. According to a study by aid agency Oxfam International, up to four times as many females as males may have been killed in the tsunami. For the full report see: http://www.oxfam.org.uk.

In Indonesia, in four villages in the Aceh Besar district, out of 676 survivors only 189 were females. Male survivors outnumbered female survivors by almost 3 to 1. In four villages in North Aceh District, females accounted for 77% of deaths in these villages. In the worst affected village, Kuala Cangkoy, for every one male that died, four females died, or in other words, 80% of deaths were female.

In India, in Cuddalore district, the second most affected district in the country, almost three times more women were killed than men, with 391 women killed, compared to 146 men. In Pachaankuppam village the only deaths were those of women. In Sri Lanka too, information from camp surveys suggests a serious imbalance between the number of men and women killed.

The higher death toll among women can possibly be because

  • Women stayed behind to look for their children and the elderly when the wave hit, or were frantically continuing to search for their children when the second wave hit.

  • Women were less likely to know how to swim or climb palm trees.

  • Women's traditional clothing in some cases might have hindered their movement as they tried to run and climb to higher ground.

  • In Aceh, women have a high level of participation in the labour force, but the wave struck on a Sunday when they were at home and the men were out running errands, or were out at sea (where the waves were less ferocious) or working in the fields.

  • Women in India were close to the shore, waiting for the fishermen to come in with their catch.

  • In Batticoloa District, Sri Lanka, when the tsunami hit, it was the hour on the east coast women usually take their baths in the sea.

For the women survivors, life is rather grim. Organizations active in the post-tsunami scene have found that in addition to the trauma of losing their loved ones, injury and the loss of their homes and livelihoods, women experience the additional hazard of verbal and physical harassment by men in camps and settlements and sexual abuse in the packed resettlement sites, particularly in and around toilets. Due to their vulnerability, women are already being pressured into early marriages. Women's special health needs are not being adequately addressed. Due to non-availability of adequate supplies of water and sanitation, women become prone to reproductive tract and urinary infections. Additionally, they are being hit by the loss of income and inability to access cash, and with some women at risk of sexual exploitation and dependency, this is a pattern that will be difficult to break. Widows in Nagapattinam have rarely been allotted separate shelters. Instead, they have been made to live with relatives, whose main preoccupation is with the compensation money. The rehabilitation packages do not adequately assess the needs of women-headed household, which account for as many as 40% of families in the area.

There is need to tackle these issues by prioritizing the protection of women from sexual violence and exploitation, particularly in the camps and including a gender dimension to all efforts at relief and rehabilitation, especially the rebuilding of sustainable livelihoods. There is also need to recognize women's work. For instance, the majority of women in the fishing community were involved in the marketing of fish, processing the surplus catch and collection activities on the shore. According to a report prepared by Sneha, an NGO working with women in the area, the work of women is not recognized by the state and community. One of their recommendations to the state government is to extend worker status to women. Unless women's needs are looked into and incorporated into the rehabilitation policies, women trying to rebuild their lives have a long struggle ahead.

Saffron Hued Succour

While battling the odds against nature's fury has been difficult enough, fighting religious prejudice and discrimination in relief and rehabilitation has been more challenging. Here we describe just one instance of religious fundamentalists taking advantage of the situation.

The tsunami had a devastating impact on Allapad Kerala where more than 150 women, children and elderly dead and houses completely swept away or partially damaged. The Araya fisherfolk have lost their equipment and thus their livelihoods. Allapad is also home to the Amruthanandamayi Math headed by the famous ‘Amma’. When the state government’s rehabilitation measures did not materialize despite promises, Amma came forward to offer Rs. 100 crore for rehabilitation, food and medicine, temporary tin sheds and plans to construct houses. Activists in the area have been questioning the source of this money and the manner in which it is going to be used. While the High Court has asked the state government to provide accounts of all the funds received as tsunami aid, organizations like the Math seem to be exempt from this scrutiny.

The focus of schemes promoted by the Math is also problematic. For instance, for women who have lost both children, Amrutha, super-speciality hospital run by the Math, at Edapally performs reversal of tubectomies. The desperate mothers are full of hope, but doctors are sceptical. The reduction of women into mere tools for reproduction and make them guinea pigs by subjecting their bodies to reversal of tubectomies has also been questioned by local women activists, who point out that this is hardly the ideal way of healing for a woman who has lost her children in the disaster. This medicinal response to bereavement is more out of place in a situation where so many children have also lost their families. A community response of encouraging and providing a supportive atmosphere and adequate infrastructure for adoption would perhaps better help those coping with the grief of losing their children. Another disturbing aspect of the rehabilitation is the Hinduisation of a population that is not all Hindu. Women in the relief camps run by the Math have to attend mandatory bhajan sessions with sindoor on their foreheads. There is a clear refusal to allow worship or prayer of any other faith. Sewa Bharati, the cultural outfit of RSS has also magnanimously joined in the rehabilitation efforts and has set up camps in various places. They are facilitating classes for women beginning with recitation of shlokas. The Hindu Aikyavedi has come forward as saviours and all other organizations, especially Christian and Muslim have been kept out. Not only that, posters have sprung up at various places threatening dire consequences against any Christian charity organizations, and activists opposing this communal fervor were beaten up badly. What is heartening is that the youth of the fisher community are not willing to stand by as mute spectators. The youth reiterated the fact that they are a community of many faiths, and have always lived amicably. They buried their dead in the same place and cannot distinguish who lies where on the basis of caste or religion, since the tsunami took their loved ones irrespective of caste or religion.

While it is no one's case that charity organizations and religious foundations should not put in their best efforts to relief and rehabilitation, the deliberate communalising of rehabilitation efforts throws a question mark on their intentions. The activities of these organizations, the source of their funds and the manner and conditions under which funds are disbursed need to be transparent and open to public scrutiny.

Caste Aside Even During Disaster

A devastating tsunami killing lakhs of people and rendering thousands homeless is not sufficient to destroy caste prejudice, as the post-tsunami scene has shown. Discrimination in relief camps in Tamil Nadu, Dalits being pushed out of shelters into the pouring rain, stuffed into dingy schools while higher castes stayed in marriage halls; a vehement refusal to allow Dalits to eat in common kitchens- these were the heart rending stories that began steadily trickling in almost as soon as relief operations were underway. It is also emerging that non fishing communities in Tamil Nadu, mainly the Dalits, have largely been left out of the rehabilitation, reinforcing their marginalized existence.

“Outside Mercy” is a short film on “discrimination of dalits post tsunami” made by a group of people actively involved in the relief and rehabilitation processes in the tsunami affected villages of Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry. While the mainstream media has been covering the success of the relief efforts, there are several issues that are being suppressed and need to be brought to the notice of the general public. These include issues of exclusion in the relief process and discrimination of Dalits. The 30 minute film (English and Tamil versions available) documents the losses and struggle of those thousands of people who have been severely affected by the tsunami yet have received little or no relief. Further, there is no plan to rehabilitate them as is being done for the fisher-people. The film is a non-funded effort, and the film-makers would like to recover costs through contributions, of Rs 100 for the VCD and Rs 300 for the DVD. Larger amounts are welcome. For copies, please contact: Revathi: r_revs@yahoo.com/ 09444030032.