The monsoon that has washed over Sri Lanka in torrents in the past few months has left 53,673 people severely affected in the Northern Province, according to the Disaster Management Center. In the Uva province, over 320 are displaced in Badulla as it is a high risk area for landslides. Whether monsoon rains or drought, we are all too familiar with displacement – and even death – when merciless natural disasters ravage the island.
‘Shelter from the Storm’ the 2015 State of the World Population publication by UNFPA, identifies that women and girls are the most vulnerable in disaster situations world over. The report states: “when a crisis strikes, women and girls are disproportionately disadvantaged and less prepared or empowered to survive or recover”. On a global level, women and girl survivors of a crisis situation are immediately at a greater risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection, having an unintended or unwanted pregnancy, maternal death and illness, and sexual and gender-based violence.
The situation is no different in Sri Lanka.
Why are women and girls more vulnerable?
Looking back at one of the most catastrophic natural disasters that we experienced in the recent past, the 2004 tsunami was so severe it brought into effect a temporary ceasefire in the drawn out conflict between the security forces and the LTTE.
Affecting swathes of the eastern and southern coasts, the tsunami took over 30,000 lives, and left 1 million people displaced. Its sheer magnitude, and given that Sri Lanka was completely unprepared for a tsunami – most had not heard of a tsunami before – makes it a useful case study. It was found that in Sri Lanka, as well as in Indonesia and India, the number of women and children who lost their lives in the tsunami was greater than that of men.
Most women and girls, given our culture and gender roles that children are imbued with, did not have the skills, such as the ability to swim or climb trees, to save themselves. As Shanthi Sivasanan, an Oxfam Programme Assistant working on gender protection issues, explained in an Oxfam study: “Many men climbed trees to escape the water — it was something they had done many times before to pick fruit and while playing — yet women had never done this before and so didn’t do it”.
Onali Ariyabandhu, who was 11 years old when she was caught in the siege of sea water as the tsunami crashed into the Southern coast of Galle, managed to save herself by clinging onto a tree.
Onali and her family were on their way to Kataragama when the tsunami struck. They had stopped at a supermarket in Galle to pick up a few supplies for the trip, when the seawater gushed from all sides consuming the van she was in. In minutes the van was submerged. The shutters were drawn but water streamed in through the A/C vents, and in no time the inside of the van was filled with water.
Onali and her cousin managed to break through the glass shutter and escape drowning while trapped in the van.
“I just remember moving out of the broken shutter. The next thing I remember is my cousin’s tight grip around my waist loosening; we were separated”, she says as she recalls her harrowing experience.
Her struggle to stay alive as she came up for air felt like hours to her as she was being washed away by the current. To her relief, a while later, she saw her cousin up a tree. He yelled out to her to climb a tree as well, and with some difficulty she managed to grab hold of one. He then hurriedly instructed her to climb up higher.
“A few minutes later my younger sister, who was 9 at the time, was being washed away closer to the tree my cousin was on. He managed to grab hold of her and pull her up into the tree to safety”.
Onali recalls that there was another girl in a red dress who was on top of a four-wheel drive vehicle that was being carried away by the current. Her panicked struggles made the vehicle more unstable as it jounced in the water, but there was little Onali could do for her as she clung to the tree.
Later, once the water receded, Onali was rescued by some men in the town. As the man carried her away – her little body tucked easily under one of his arms – she felt a tap on her shoulder. Craning her neck over she noticed the man was carrying the girl in the red dress under his other arm. The girl was lifeless.
Like the girl in the red dress, many other women and girls, were at a loss about how to react and what they should do to save themselves.
Post Disaster Reconciliation
In the days that ensued women and girls had added issues to cope with. Given their low status relative to men, they were hardly consulted or included in local governance and post-tsunami reconstruction matters.
The UNFPA report, Shelter from the Storm, identifies women are markedly more vulnerable to various forms of gender-based violence in crisis situations. These include being subjected to rape, trafficking and prostitution; forced pregnancies and marriages. One of the indirect impacts that are long-term and equally traumatizing is the increase in domestic violence.
Oxfam interviewed a woman in one of the tsunami displacement camps who said, “In the night we get scared because there are no lights. It’s frightening for us, we know there are snakes and you can’t see who is around the toilets and washing areas.”
A field officer, with Sarvodaya, P. Velunagagam, narrated “last week there was a problem between a man and his wife. The government is giving people payments after they lost their relatives and houses in the tsunami. The husband went to claim the payment and spent it on Arrack [a local liquor made from palm sap] to get drunk. The wife asked where the money had gone so he hit her… We couldn’t take her to a doctor because she refused to see one or to speak of it.”
Women in crisis situations today
Saranga Withanage, Assistant Director of Training and Education, at the Disaster Management Centre (DCM), says that the government is currently carrying out awareness building programmes for women. “There is no specific or special training for women. In a disaster situation the steps to follow are the same for men and women, but we are having training programmes for women to ensure that they are aware of what to do in a crisis situation”.
Withanage adds that the programme is of international standards as it is based on the SAARC policy and the five year programme that was established by UNESCO.
For their own efforts, the DMC gives special provisions for women and girls. These include sanitary items and milk for feeding infants as these items are often overlooked by those who donate supplies.
Speaking about some difficulties the DMC has faced in these situations, she says “We try to take pregnant women, even if they are not about to give birth immediately, to hospitals and medical units for special care, but most women insist on remaining with their families in the shelters and camps”.
Sri Lanka has certainly come a long way since the Boxing Day tsunami consumed the coastal regions of the island. While the State is making efforts to include women and girls, and to help them in the reconstruction and rehabilitation, more needs to be done.
There are also limits to what the state can do. Some cultural beliefs and unfair stereotyping of women prevents them from learning valuable, lifesaving skills.