|Sunday, 23 January 2005|
Empowering female survivors of the tsunami :
It's their life
by Carol Aloysius
Women have always been considered one of the most vulnerable segments of any society. More so when they are widows, or have lost their homes, families, and means of livelihood, and are forced to live in unfamiliar surroundings.
The thousands of displaced female victims of the tsunami who are living in Welfare Centres, are a case in point. In many of these Centres, they have become easy prey for sex vultures, and other forms of gender abuse.
The problems they face are innumerable, yet many of them appear to be sidelined, say women's organisations currently researching into their plight.
To quote the Coalition for Assisting Tsunami Affected women, by December 31, 2004, barely a week after the tsunami struck the coastal areas of Sri Lanka, the first newspaper reports began appearing about women being sexually abused while they were being 'rescued' from the tsunami, These were followed by other stories of sexual abuse of women (and children) taking place simultaneously in various welfare centres set up to house them.
This prompted a coalition of women's groups comprising the networks of Sri lanka Women's NGO Forum, Mothers and Daughters of Lanka Women's Alliance for Peace and Democracy, Action Network for Migrant Workers and the Women's Alliance for Peace, to issue a statement calling for heightened sensitivity to the needs of the tsunami affected women for protection and security in the camps and elsewhere. "A key challenge to us was that there were no official reports on such incidents' says a coalition spokesperson.
"Measures taken by both state and non-state agencies to provide relief to displaced persons did not take into account the specific needs of women, including their security".
Following a discussion by the women and Media Collective in Colombo, women's groups comprising the coalition for Assisting Tsunami Affected Women (CATAW) then decided to send out fact finding teams to the different tsunami affected areas, to authenticate reports of abuse of women, and get a better understanding of what protection mechanisms for women were in place.
Among the areas visited were Galle, Tangalle, Hambanbtota, Matara, Kalmunai, Akkaraipattu, Batticaloa and Jaffna.
The findings by these teams were a real eye-opener says a spokesperson for these women's activities groups. For example, the teams found that there was a, "sense of insecurity and fear in most of the camps as well as attempted molestation and coercion by adult males, including some in charge of the camps.' In one camp which was served by a temporary electricity connection, women complained that at night someone would trigger off a power failure. In the dark, men would enter the areas of the camp where women were sleeping and grope their bodies.
In the second week after the tsunami, police personnel began to appear in the camps in the South while members of the STF were also visible in the East to provide security to the inhabitants. However, the teams noted, "It was clear that they had no specific training in the area of violence against women and were primarily concerned with maintaining discipline within the camp.
Among their key activities was keeping outsiders out of the camps at night and preventing men under the influence of liquor and drugs from entering the camps. "It was clear that they had not received any instructions regarding the possible interventions and responses to complaints of violence made by women and children", the spokesperson said.
Female inmates at these camps had also complained to the fact finding teams, of problems faced due to the insensitivity of camp officials who were 'almost always men.'
According to the team, in many of the camps they visited, men were in charge of maintaining lists distributing rations and donations and meeting visitors.
A complaint received by the fact finding mission concerning problems created by male dominated camp administration was with regard to the distribution of underwear.
Bras and panties were distributed publicly with embarrassing comments about which sizes were appropriate for whom, they said. Young women in one camp told then that the distribution of sanitary napkins was kept under the control of male camp officials who handed out two napkins at a time forcing women to go back to them each time they needed a fresh one. Nor was there much awareness on the part of the male dominated camp personnel about the importance of reproductive health and sexual health care of the female inmates.
As a result of these findings, CATAW has made several recommendations to help these displaced women. It has recommended that officials in both state and non state agencies working with the displaced, be made aware of the gender specific and special needs of women in these camps.
It has also recommended that women in displaced communities be brought into a consultative process and be made part of the decision making implementation, and monitoring of relief and service delivery, as well as medium and long term reconstruction and development. It has further recommended that women become an integral part of the disaster management committees set up at district and Divisional Secretariat levels, and that gender sensitive guidelines be issued to all camp officials and security personnel to protect women from gender based violence.
State agencies working for displaced women have, in the meantime, taken various steps to protect this vulnerable segment of society. The Women's Empowerment Division of the Ministry of Women's Empowerment and Social Welfare for tsunami victims told the Sunday Observer that it had set up a separate Unit to assist the female and child tsunami victims at its office in Narahenpita. "Our focus initially was to collect food items and women's and children's requirements and send them to the different camps. But now we are also focusing on the security of these women.
We have made a request to the IGP and the director Police Women and Children's Bureau to be vigilant especially about the safety of women in the welfare centres", a spokesperson said. She added that, the Women's Committees of the Women's Bureau at the Divisional Secretariat level had further been mobilised to oversee the security of women at these centres.
Mrs. Swarna Sumanasekea, a spokesperson for the National Committee of Women said that her organisation had requested the public to keep them informed about any incidents of sexual harassment against women occurring in the camps, by referring such complaints to its Complaints Centre.
"We have received no official complaint as yet", she added. "We are now in the process of distributing leaflets on the responsibilities and obligations of those in the Centres to ensure the security of women", she said.
These leaflets also advise women on personal hygiene, how to use sanitary napkins, encourages them to use contraceptive and practice family planning methods if they have been doing so before. They also alert women of the danger of being sexually abused in a camp setting.
She admitted that although there were police and STF forces kept at camps to ensure the safety of women, there was still a lot of "unease in some camps. I understand that leaflets are being distributed as to who the inmates should contact in a crisis.
But I'm not sure if they are specifically addressed to women", she said adding, "We are asking these women to help themselves by forming small groups among themselves to discuss their psychological problems, working in a spirit of amity and helping each other...
"We need to listen to these women, empathise with them, see to their basic needs including their health,and help them fill questions regarding their socio-economic status prior to the tsunami, so that we can know how many of them were affected in the areas of housing, education, economic activities and we are also working with our grass roots staff and local women's organisations in all the affected areas to empower them with knowledge and skills, Mrs. Sumanasekara said.
A spokesperson for Women In Need (WIN) society, said that the organisation which works mostly for battered women, has sent qualified counsellors in trauma counselling to help women in Hambantota, Tangalle, Beruwela and Akkaraipattu.' On the question of sexual harassment of women, she said that no official reports of such incidents had yet been received by the organisation, "but we are warning women to be vigilant".
So what happens when they do get a complaint of sexual harassment?
"Then our Crisis Centres in various parts of the island, will give them free legal advice, even appearing for the complainant free of charge, keep the women in temporary shelter if they have no place to go,and counsel them".
WIN has also set up a Hotline - 4718585 which will give access even to women in camps via the police officials and grama niladharis at these camps, to contact them for help. In addition it provides postal counselling to traumatised women with no access to the phone. "Those who cannot come to us directly can write to us or phone us if they wish, for counselling and advice", the spokesperson said.
The Health Education bureau has also stepped in to help women with several guidelines on health and security which are being distributed to both the health workers at these camps and the female inmates.
In spite of these efforts to provide relief for their physical and emotional needs the consensus of opinion among the women's organisations we spoke to, was that women should be an integral part of management at these camps and be given an equal share in distribution of rations,and most importantly be able to voice their grievances to people who are gender sensisitive.
Sources also said that a Databank should be set up to serve as a reference for developing skills training programs for these displaced women, starting at grass roots levels. "We have to first identify their needs and then think of specific programs tailored to meet those needs", a spokeswoman for the Media Collective Centre said.
For example, she pointed out, in some of the affected areas women were engaged in fish processing, in others they were involved in agriculture; in still others in cadjan weaving.
Each training program must therefore be tailored to these specific needs, area-wise, she stressed. "For this we need to do a livelihood survey, as well as data on the number of new female headed households - especially by women who have no skills to perform this task.She added that the ILO is currently doing livelihood survey with focus on women's issues.
However, to facilitate any training scheme for such women in the future, it is important to obtain some quick input on the exact number of women who have been forced into the role of female heads of their households following the death of their husbands in the tsunami disaster.
The future of these displaced women however, will depend on whether they are brought into the decision making and planning of such programs , whether it concerns their personal safety and protection from gender harassment, or the re-building of their lives.
Only then can there be real empowerment for these female survivors of the tsunami.
Produced by Lake House