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SAARC: Violence Against Women-Tsunami-Survivors

14th SAARC Summit: Don't Forget The Rise In Violence Against Women-Tsunami-Survivors


by Bobby Ramakant

'People's Report' capturing sordid sagas of over 7500 tsunami affected women in five countries (Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Maldives, and Somalia) was in the spotlight before 14 th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit began in New Delhi, India (3-4 April 2007). This report reveals that failure to involve women and girls in decision-making on relief and rehabilitation has fuelled an increase in violence against them.

This report and a Charter of Demands were presented to the SAARC's Disaster Management Centre on 28 March 2007. The Director, SAARC Disaster Management Centre, P.G.Dhar Chakrabarti, welcomed the women's' demands and reiterated SAARC's commitment to "partnering with women's groups at the micro level so that policymakers remain grounded in reality."

The December 26, 2004 tsunami killed more than 230,000 people in 12 countries in Asia and Africa . It is well documented that more women died in the tsunami than men. For example, in Nagapattinam, the worst affected district of Tamil Nadu in South India , government statistics state that 2,406 women died, compared with 1,883 men.

Under 'normal' circumstances there is a high incidence of violence against women in South Asian countries but tsunami affected women reported that violence intensified in the weeks and months that followed the disaster.

"My daughter was raped by a powerful man of our village. They threatened me that I should not complain to the police, but somehow I went to the police. They did not accept my complaint because they have been influenced by the man who did this crime," says a mother in Sri Lanka.

The violence experienced by women extends beyond the conventional understanding of physical, sexual or emotional violence. Women were left out of consultations, formulation of policies and design of programmes for relief operations, camp management, damage and need assessments, allocation of houses and land, and the rebuilding of livelihoods.

The persistent discrimination perpetrated by the state, communities and families in all aspects of women's lives – civil, political, social, cultural and economic – is also violence. This sustained denial and abuse, called 'structural violence', hampers their recovery and denies them dignity and security.

Through discriminatory policies and practices, women's rights to information, decision-making, food, water, sanitation, education, health, housing, land and livelihood have all been violated in the wake of the tsunami.

The threat of eviction and/or relocation of fisher families away from the coast with the associated loss of women's sea-based livelihoods was another common concern raised by tsunami survivors.

"We were shifted to a place where there is no work, no food to feed our children. I sold my kidney and got a small amount. They did not give me the promised amount. Now I am suffering with heavy abdominal pain. I cannot work," says a resident of Kargil Nagar, India, in this report.

The recognition of men as heads of households results in women frequently being left out, at the time of compensation and rehabilitation efforts, particularly single women, women with disabilities, older women and women heading households

States have a responsibility under the 'Convention for the Elimination of Violence Against Women' (CEDAW), to end all forms of violence against women and ensure that women's rights are protected, even in the worst of disasters. In South Asia, one of the most disaster prone regions in the world, there are no specific policies to address the violence against women in the aftermath of the disaster.

Disasters, however 'natural', are profoundly discriminatory. Wherever they hit, pre -existing prejudices and structural inequalities determine that some people will be less affected while others will pay a higher price. That is the case for women and girls affected by the tsunami.

Let's hope that the voices from one of the most unheard communities will be heard at the SAARC Summit in New Delhi this week.

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(The author is a senior health and development journalist writing for newspapers in Asia and Africa. He can be contacted at: bobbyramakant @ yahoo.com)

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