Sri Lanka Report

Sri Lanka – a land like no other! The pearl of the Indian Ocean. A tropical island surrounded by sparkling blue water and golden sands, green palms swaying in the gentle breeze, a land of sunshine, a land of eternal summer.

Naturally, the surrounding ocean played an important part in the lives of the islanders, be it fishing to make a living or just frolicking in the warm water. The sea was always looked upon as a benign entity. Moreover, the rhythmic rise & fall of the white foam-flecked waves was believed to have a calming effect on the mind.

December 26, 2004 for ever changed this impression of the sea in the hearts of millions around the world.

It was 7 months ago that the most powerful earthquake in 40 years erupted under the Indian Ocean near Sumatra that morning, causing giant killer waves to crash ashore in a dozen countries across South Asia and East Africa, leaving about 220,000 dead, millions homeless, families broken and the entire world shaken.

The tsunami had done its worst in just a matter of moments.

Sri Lanka was 1,600 km from the epicenter of the earthquake, but the massive wall of water that was generated struck this beautiful isle with such force that it destroyed three-quarters of its famed coastline, taking over 30,000 lives and affecting more than a million.

This was the worst ever human disaster in Sri Lanka History. The life-giving water had turned into a ruthless killer. The gentle giant had become a malevolent force. The sea that for millions of years had provided a livelihood to fisher folk had brought unspeakable tragedy.

Desctruction

The tsunami destroyed homes and buildings, roads and railways, agricultural crops and affected water and electricity supplies, communication and more. The breakdown in infrastructure had an adverse effect on people’s health, leaving them suffering from inadequate food and drinking water, medicines and sanitation.

While it dealt a blow to tourism, it had a severe impact on the livelihood of people, mostly from poor communities who lived mainly off the sea. A million have been displaced – that is 5 % of Sri Lanka’s population – and it is estimated that about 40,000 people would require long term assistance and support. These include the vulnerable sections of society – the widows, orphans, elderly and disabled.

Aid

In the words of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, this was an “unprecedented global catastrophe” that required an “unprecedented global response”. And it is commendable that the international community responded to this challenge like never before.

At the Sri Lanka Development Forum held two months ago, international donors pledged 3 billion US dollars in tsunami aid to the island.

Victims

There is no doubt that women and children were the hardest hit by the tsunami. Official statistics are not yet available, but grass-root organizations helping with relief operations in Sri Lanka, estimate that women and children were the majority of the 30,000 odd total deaths.

12,000 children lost their lives in the tsunami. In other word, 40% of those who died were children. Thousands were orphaned or left homeless. Children, especially girls, were extremely vulnerable in situations of such large-scale displacement and death, and they were open to various forms of exploitation and violence. Human trafficking, drugs and child labor are lucrative trades and young girls could easily be drawn into all types of abuse, begging and prostitution. It is said that certain organizations and individuals on the pretext of helping and relocating victims, removed young girls and children from camps.

Authorities tried their best to reunite children separated from their families as quickly as possible or resettle them with relatives, But here, too, young girls faced problems of being forced to live with relatives, some of whom could ill treat them or make use of them in various obnoxious ways. Orphaned children and those separated from their families not only had to deal with their sense of loss, but face danger, sometimes from those purporting to help them.

Many children have now developed a fear of the ocean and steps have to be taken to allay such fears.

The education system suffered huge losses, with schools and libraries destroyed all over the Island, and this would in the long term affect children’s future. There is a need to support the education of particularly the girl child.

Gender Impact

The tsunami’s impact on women has been horrendous. It uprooted women from their familiar surroundings, stole their children and men folk, destroyed their livelihood and economic security and left many of them homeless, hopeless and helpless. Overnight they found themselves refugees in camps trying as best as they could to look after their children.

The loss of so many women could be attributed to several factors:

  1. Traditional gender roles and styles, such as their selfless commitment to husband and children which made them look for their family instead of saving themselves.
  2. Social, economic and in some communities religious restrictions that keep women housebound.
  3. The extreme sense of modesty that prevented them from running away for fear of tearing or losing their clothes.
  4. Some were weighed down by the children they were carrying
  5. Many women died because they were hampered by the traditional saree they were wearing
  6. Others drowned when their long hair got entangled in bushes and debris. *
  7. Women in the villages are traditionally not taught to swim, so they could not out beat the water
  8. They did not possess sufficient physical strength

GENDER SPECIFIC PROBLEMS

  1. While resident in temporary shelters, women faced greater risks and vulnerabilities to their physical security. They had no privacy and were forced to share sleeping areas with the men. Threats of rape, gang rape, molestation and physical abuse increased.
  2. The adverse effect of the tsunami on women’s health, both physical and mental, cannot be emphasized enough. Women had their loved ones literally torn from their arms by the rushing water and it would haunt them for the rest of their lives. The tsunami also destroyed much of the health care system including maternal and child care services, increasing the risk of maternal and infant deaths and sexually transmitted disease.
  3. Women are also being stigmatized for surviving, while their children and elderly relatives died. Some are accused of not being able to save their children. It is reported that a young pregnant woman killed herself at a refugee camp because her husband blamed her for the deaths of their two children.
  4. The additional stress on families has also led to increased alcohol abuse by men which in turn could mean a greater incidence of domestic violence.
  5. The composition of the family changed in some families through the death of the husband or the father and in some areas, authorities only recognize male-headed households. This meant that a woman who has lost her husband was not entitled to claim the monthly amount given by the government to each family.
  6. Gender imbalance could lead to a shift in the traditional roles played by men and women.
    Women who lost their husbands are forced to take up the role of the head of the family and bread winner. This is difficult because they have been used to the traditional role of home maker and care giver and do not have necessary skills to earn a living. They are easily exploited too.
  7. Other more enterprising women who tried in various ways to supplement their husband’s earnings or earn their own livelihood in various ways found their hopes and dreams gone with the water.
    The woman who depended on a daily income by making and selling food items found herself in a quandary because her pots and pans had been washed away. Another who was engaged in making fish nets out of coconut fiber found that she had no work now. Yet another who grew fruit and vegetables and sold them in the market to make a living had no garden left after the tsunami struck.
    Women and girls skilled in needlework and traditional craft such as lace making were distraught because their sewing machines and equipment had been destroyed and they were left with nothing, absolutely nothing to make a living. Such women are now dependent on others.
  8. Some of the women who faced the terror of the tsunami were those who had also experienced the horror of the 22 year old civil ethnic conflict in the northern and eastern provinces. To them it is double trouble.

This then is the plight of women who have to struggle to live in traumatic situations. All they ask for are a house, a livelihood and social security.

Response & Rehabilitation

In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, apart from the government’s efforts, women’s groups, NGOs and INGOs banded together to look into the welfare of women made destitute and to address problems faced by them in camps and find solutions. They made efforts to ensure that women were protected from discrimination, harassment and violence and provided with adequate security. They urged the government to investigate and act on reports that women and girls in temporary shelters were being sexually harassed.

The provision of adequate health care services together with counseling was also stressed. The pregnant woman, the widowed wife, the widowed mother-to-be, the woman whose baby was snatched from her arms by the cruel waves

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