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Women and disaster

Resilience amid ruin

Many more women than men died in the Aceh tsunami. Today the women survivors wrestle with disaster relief programs that don't consider their special needs.

SURVIVING THE TSUNAMI. Most of the victims of the tidal wave that killed tens of thousands in the Indonesian province of Aceh in December 2004 were women.

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Rahmi is about 14, but has already lost the world she knew. One can see it in her sad, soulful eyes, and in her inability to smile. And the reason is evident just by surveying what surrounds her here in this northwestern Sumatran city. Nearly a year after the powerful Dec. 26 earthquake struck and triggered tsunamis in several parts of Asia, this once bustling coastal city remains desolate. In many areas, piles of rubble are the only proof that there were once houses and buildings there while in others, muddy boats scattered willy-nilly far from the shore show just how strong the waves that swept into Banda Aceh were. There are also places where the stench of death still hangs in the air, even as a few men sort through the debris.

Save for a younger brother, Rahmi is all that is left of her family. She doesn’t know it yet, but Aceh’s female population in particular has been just as decimated. In fact, the tsunami didn’t just flatten this provincial capital and almost erased it from the map. It also altered the demographics of a place that was already a man’s world to begin with, and may have paved the way for a hard future for Rahmi, a life that will be more difficult than what her mother or grandmother had experienced.

The total death toll from the tsunamis that swamped coastal communities in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, India, and seven other countries was 220,000. Based on the Indonesia National Disaster Coordinating Board or NDCB, more than half of those deaths were from Aceh. Excluded in these figures, however, are the missing, which may be far more than the fatalities.

In many areas, including Aceh, most of the missing or dead are women. In five villages in Aceh’s Lampu’uk subdistrict, the women’s group Flower Aceh says only 40 of the 750 survivors from a population of 5,500 are women. Other local nongovernmental organizations and international aid groups have found similar statistics in other tsunami-affected communities in the province. The international relief group Oxfam says that in four villages in Aceh Besar district, male survivors outnumber the females by a ratio of three to one. In four villages in North Aceh, the female death toll made up 70 percent of the fatalities. In Kuala Cangkoy, 80 percent of the dead were female.

Not surprisingly, men outnumber the women in the camps and barracks set up for “internally displaced people” or IDPs. International and local NGOs, as well as U.N. agencies, worry that if what is happening in these camps and barracks is any indication, the Acehnese women and girls who survived the deadly waves should brace themselves for what can lie ahead.

Heavier burdens, heightened risks of abuse

As in other Asian societies, women are the traditional caregivers in Aceh, and perform the household chores. They still perform such tasks in the camps, but these days their burden has become heavier because of the sheer number of men and children they are expected to serve and look after. Before the tsunami, each Acehnese household could probably count on more than a pair of female hands to do the chores. Today not only is that no longer true, women and girls are expected to help men who are not their relatives, if only because Acehnese males are “embarrassed to be seen doing housework,” says Tesmiati Emsa, who heads a women’s NGO based here. Another relief worker says some widowers left with children to look after simply could not cope with the idea of becoming caregivers even to their own offspring that they readily gave these up to an orphanage.

Meanwhile, NGOs and international aid agencies say many of the women have been subjected to sexual harassment and abuse, while some have found themselves becoming victims of physical violence wielded by bored or frustrated men. Erwin Setiawan of Flower Aceh says men are lashing out partly because of the stressful conditions in the barracks where there is a lack of privacy and where they are unable to practice their usual means of livelihood. But he offers no explanation why women, who are enduring the same conditions, are not reacting in the same way and instead are made to bear the brunt of the men’s pent-up emotions.

In fact, life in the camps and the barracks is even more stressful for the women because, say several observers, their needs were not taken into consideration in designing these temporary shelters. For instance, there are no separate toilets for men and women. Many of the toilets have no roofs or are made from just plastic sheets or sacks, through which peepholes could easily be cut.

“I heard a lot of cases of men peeping while women were taking a bath in their temporary shelters,” says MB Wijaksana, editor in chief of Journal Perempuan, a Jakarta-based women’s magazine. He says he tried to check with the police if they were aware of these cases, which he describes as forms of sexual harassment, and found that the authorities had somehow managed to escape hearing about them.

Personal supplies such as underwear and sanitary napkins have also apparently been excluded from the list of basic needs provided in the shelters. The lack of supply of long-sleeved shirts and headscarves — essential to Acehnese women, who are predominantly Muslim like the majority of Indonesians — has remained unchecked. In a press statement, the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) observed that in the face of such unmet needs, “women and girls become reluctant to carry out public activities and even access basic needs and humanitarian assistance.”

As if they didn’t have enough problems, the women in the shelters have also had to put up with the lack of clean water, which means they are usually forced to fetch some elsewhere and lug it back to their quarters. But according to UNFPA information officer in Indonesia Maria Hulupi, some barracks are in areas that make it dangerous for women to venture outside. As it is, the crowded, maledominated environment has meant that women and girls have had to put up with being constantly teased and stared at.

Forced marriages

The setup of many of the shelters — with related men and women staying in the same tent or room together — has even lent itself to a trend many of the female refugees do not welcome at all: forced marriages. Samsidar, who heads a subcommittee of the National Commission on Violence against Women, says young women are being pressured to marry males staying in the same tents or barracks. Such marriages have become “an informal rule,” she says. Journalist Wijaksana, for his part, says that the pressure to marry is greater on young single women because he says that in Aceh, virgins are preferred to widows, who tend to be looked down upon.

DOUBLE BURDEN. Acehnese women take part in cash-for-work activities organized in the refugees camps, but they have to do the housework and take care of children as well.

“For men the loss of wife seems a simple thing,” he adds. Besides, says Wijaksana, the shari’ah law forbids women from remarrying within three months of the deaths of their spouses. Men can remarry any time. Nana of the Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries (Hivos) cites the case of a man in Malaboh on the Sumatran coast who married his sister-in-law only a week after his wife disappeared as a result of the tsunami. He thought she was dead, says Nana. A month later, the wife resurfaced.

Oxfam says that forced marriage has serious implications on the education, livelihood, and reproductive health especially of young women. “Surviving women may also be encouraged to have more children, with shorter intervals between them, to replace those lost by the community,” it also says. “Again, this has consequences for their reproductive health and their ability to earn an independent income.”

Compared to the men, there are fewer Acehnese women who have had some education, since families give priority to sending the male children to school. This practice is rooted in the belief that the women’s best place is the home — even though they are not recognized as household heads.

Hivos’s Nana says some of the women in the shelters who participate in cash-for-work activities have admitted to her that all they could do was cry when their husbands would not let them leave for work without first making sure that their homes were in order. Such was their fate, the women said.

The harsh truth is that the social position of women in Aceh accounts for their disproportionate number of deaths, say local and international NGO workers. Because the tsunami smothered the province on a Sunday, most of the women and children were at home while many of the men were out — socializing, running errands, or fishing. Other men had also not returned home for quite some time because their jobs were elsewhere. Ironically, 70 percent of Aceh’s pre-tsunami population consisted of women, because men were either being killed or were fleeing the conflict between the Indonesian military and separatist Free Aceh Movement or GAM.

But most Acehnese women, unlike the men, do not know how to climb trees or swim, say some observers. This made it difficult for them to escape the raging waters of December 26. Yet even those who did know how to climb trees or could swim perished in the end because they were either dragged down by the sheer weight of the children and other family members that they tried so hard to save — in keeping with their traditional role as caregivers — or succumbed eventually to fatigue. Observers theorize that the long, flowing clothing that cover their arms and legs restricted the movement of the Acehnese women, frustrating their escape from the tsunami.

Finding their voice

Aid worker Nana of Hivos fears that Aceh’s women survivors could only become a weaker force now that their numbers have been diminished greatly,while men could emerge more dominant. Before the tsunami, women were already reluctant to speak, especially in public gatherings. Even now, despite all the hardships they have had to endure in postdisaster Aceh, many women are hesitant to voice out their concerns.

But gender and poverty expert Yulfita Rahardjo says Acehnese women can strengthen their position if only they could be made aware of their rights. She concedes, though, that men will have to be educated as well on gender issues. In a gender training she conducted a few months ago in Jakarta for the subdistrict heads and planners in Aceh, she says it was evident that the participants — mostly male 1 did not understand the concept of gender and even blamed the women if they were not being heard, saying the women refused to talk.

Yet women in Aceh have not entirely kept mum about their needs and aspirations. Some, for example, have expressed their desire to go back to their homes and start a small-scale business so they could rebuild their lives.

Nani Zulminarni, head of the women’s rights group Pekka, says the women in the districts where her organization operates were unanimous in saying that they did not want to be dependent on others. Alongside their yearning to work is their dream to have a house again, a symbol of dignity, especially for Acehnese women.

“No one expressed desperation and hopelessness,” says Zulminarni, who notes that providing livelihood is a very good starting point for empowering women. She says the grassroots women’s groups Pekka has helped have gained so much respect that their members are now being invited to important community gatherings. Says Zulminarni: “It’s a good sign.”

Sylvia Agustina, program officer of the U.N. Development Fund for Women (Unifem) says her vision for her fellow Acehnese women is not just for them to return to their “normal” lives. Agustina, who also lost a number of her loved ones to the tsunami, says, “I want them to have an option.”

Research for this story was funded by a fellowship from the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).