The Girls To Swim
tsunami, survival and the gender dimension
By S Gautham
10 August, 2006
wealthier tourists and luckier survivors have deserted the beaches of
Java after the July tsunami. But rescue workers are still pulling corpses
out of the rubble by the dozen. The mainstream media, convulsed by the
man-made crises in Mumbai and Lebanon has paid scant attention to this
calamity. The story lacks the atavistic viciousness on display in West
Asia. It mourns the absence of a Robert Fisk. Agreed, the figures are
thankfully nowhere near the chilling numbers of the disaster of 2004,
but the toll is already 650 and rising. More than 70,000 people have
fled their coastal homes; they are no less innocent and helpless than
the fleeing denizens of Beirut or the hardworking commuters of Mumbai.
Some amount of aid has reached
the survivors. Soon, there will be the usual complaints of corruption
and pilferage as things go awry. There will be more talk of warning
systems and hi-tech solutions, more opportunities for western 'Technical
Assistance'. This time around the Pacific Tsunami Warning System's bulletin
gave Indonesian authorities notice of a mere 24 minutes. There was little
they could do.
As a bruised people slowly
make what they can of their lives once again it will be the woman and
the girl child who are ignored. As always.
This truly reflects the larger
malaise in our attitude to disaster preparedness. We miss the wood for
the trees. We make grandiose reconstruction plans, at the cost of ignoring
simple local possibilities.
Forget governments, even
the media, which drives the public discourse, is quick to discuss the
impact of a disaster like the 2004 tsunami on tourism, on the environment,
on the economy, on marine life, and even underwater archaeological treasures.
There is a deafening silence on all fronts on the gender impact of such
disasters, especially the toll they extract from women. They are not
even worthy of a count when dead. There is very little effort made to
disaggregate and publish a gender break down of the casualties.
There is a treasure trove
in there for an intrepid demographer.
Natural disasters, despite
the adjective are not random in their selection of victims. It is the
existing social structures which determine who pays the higher price.
Oxfam, the British relief and development agency conducted a survey
and released figures, a few months after the 2004 tsunami. And they
In Indonesia, in the four
villages in the Aceh Besar province surveyed by Oxfam only 189 of 676
survivors were female. That is a ratio of 3:1. In the worst affected
village, Kuala Cangkoy, for every male who died, there were four females.
In Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu, almost three times as many women were killed
as men, with 391 female deaths, compared with 146 men. In Pachaankuppam
village, every single person to die was a woman.
Why does this happen? It
has been established that a tsunami is no great danger for those out
at sea. The tectonic plates clash several miles below and the waves
too pass under. It hits the coast the hardest. When the tsunami struck,
the women were on the shore waiting for the catch to come in. It is
they, who traditionally sort the catch and take it to market. And it
is tradition too which dictates that young girls will not swim or climb
trees. So, when the waters did come, more of those who could swim, and
climb survived. It is no surprise that they were mostly men.
Emergency relief measures
rarely respond specifically to women's needs. The posting of women doctors,
and police officers in some camps in India, was a rare exception. At
another extreme, NGOs flew in thousands of packets of sanitary napkins
and distributed them to Nicobarese tribal women who have never used
them. They were first used as toilet paper because there was a water
crisis, and then as pillows. This only illustrates that even when women-centric
actions take place, they can be misplaced, if the women themselves aren't
allowed to articulate what they want.
The point of all this is
that disaster management plans need to address gender in a focused manner.
There are several questions that arise. These range from security in
survivor camps, where women are hopelessly outnumbered. There are issues
of inheritance rights and access to means of livelihood. Some of the
long-term rehabilitation programs have begun to address these, but simple
local solutions to help women handle a future recurrence better, are
for the most part, ignored.
Surely, while it may be unrealistic
to begin swimming lessons for all women, a start could be attempted
with younger girls? There can be training in the fabrication and use
of low cost floating aids, and women encouraged to reach out and learn
In February 2006, the Vienna
based Women without Borders sent two volunteers to Chennai. They wanted
to teach women on the coast to swim. The idea was initially scoffed
at and dismissed. But they persisted and managed to convince some key
bureaucrats, and obtained local support.
They leased a swimming pool,
and spread the word around to the neighbouring villages. Over 80 women
and younger girls enrolled. The memory of the tsunami, still fresh,
was a powerful catalyst. However, many of them were reluctant to wear
swimming costumes. So, these were discarded and replaced with T-Shirts
and track pants. In the end, everyone who came had learnt to swim.
Teach people to swim and
boost their chances of survival. It is a simple idea that can make a
substantial difference to vulnerable lives. It doesn't have to be another
tidal wave; it can be a moderate cyclone or even monsoon floods, it
will still help. The long-term rehabilitation work must of course, continue.
But swimming lessons can be delivered locally at little or no cost.
It is a whole lot better than not to try at all because of assumptions
and pre-conceived notions of their traditions and modesty.
is based in New Delhi and work mostly as a researcher and producer of
documentary films. He can be reached at