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Teach The Girls To Swim
tsunami, survival and the gender dimension

By S Gautham

10 August, 2006

The 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 are stark:

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 them.

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.

S Gautham is based in New Delhi and work mostly as a researcher and producer of documentary films. He can be reached at









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