Responding to the Tsunami Tragedy: Women Must be at the Heart of Rebuilding Shattered Communities

5 January 2005, New York, USA


The Asian Tsunami struck two days after I returned to Malaysia and Singapore to be with my family for the New Year. Across the region, planned New Year celebrations turned into candlelight and prayer gatherings, as the media announced rising death tolls.

Over 150,000 have been confirmed dead, over a million have been displaced, and at least five million are in need of immediate assistance for survival. We may never be able to measure the full scale of the disaster: the precise numbers of dead, missing, and displaced and the utter decimation of lives, homes, economies, and communities. But it is painfully clear that we are bearing witness to of one of the most devastating natural disasters in recent history. The tsunami recognized no distinctions of race, ethnicity, religion, class, gender, or age. It devastated coastal villages as well as luxurious beach resorts. It ripped through lands stricken by war as well as those rooted in peace. While the focus of the response is rightly on saving lives and delivering immediate relief, we must already start conceptualizing a comprehensive strategy for longer-term reconstruction and development. The approach that we take in the current relief efforts will set the foundations for the healing and rebuilding of shattered communities, economies, and capacities.

Both the immediate and long-term response must be shaped by the realities on the ground in the areas affected. In two of the worst hit areas, the province of Aceh in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, the current devastation converges with the complex consequences of decades-long civil war and, in some places, severe poverty. These forces have generated division and deprivation. But they have also led to the emergence of survival systems and mutual-aid networks, including among internally displaced and refugee communities. And women have been at the forefront of many of these. So, as the international community organizes to provide much needed assistance, it must prioritize the mobilization and support of women’s networks that are crucial for emotional, social, and economic recovery. In short, women must be at the heart of the relief efforts and the re-building of shattered communities.

In Aceh, which suffered two thirds of the total death toll of the disaster, women are renowned for their central role in society and have for years been at the heart of community networks. With the out-migration of men, seeking both protection and economic security, to neighbouring provinces and countries since the 1980s, it is estimated that women comprised up to 70 percent of Aceh’s population of four million. Through years of conflict, the multiple roles women played came to form the lifeline of their communities: heading households, sustaining subsistence economies, raising children, and caring for the sick, wounded, and elderly. In this province and elsewhere, women have been at the forefront of developing survival strategies and struggling to keep their communities and economies alive, even while bearing the violence of war and the burden of poverty.

However, the relief and reconstruction operations being deployed should not expose them to further danger and trauma. Independent monitors must be immediately deployed to ensure that all aspects of the aid operations, from distribution to security, are aligned with international norms and codes of conduct. Today, the women who have survived the tsunami suffer from multiple trauma; many, including widows, have lost another round of children and family members to this tragedy. The women’s organizations that UNIFEM has been working with in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand are collecting information about the ways that women have been affected by the disaster. One woman wrote to us about a colleague who survived by climbing onto the roof of her house and now faces the third displacement in her short life: first displaced because of war, second as reconciliation began, and now because of the tsunami. Women’s groups in Sri Lanka have already reported incidents of rape and molestation of women and girls in rescue operations and in temporary shelters. In Aceh, where aid operations are taking place under the framework of continuing civil emergency, women volunteers have reported facing harassment and intimidation.

For our part, UNIFEM, the women’s fund of the United Nations, will be working with UN partners to advocate for allocation of resources and expertise to strengthen women’s networks and ensure that that their needs and realities are reflected in policies, practices, and resource allocations through the phases of relief, recovery, and development.

The response to this devastation must simultaneously address the urgency of the present and the inequalities and injustices of the past. The special protection needs of women and girls require attention, and the voices and perspectives of women and women’s support networks need to be given visibility in national strategies for relief and reconstruction, by aid organizations, and by the media. By responding in this way, we can turn this crisis into an opportunity for laying the foundations of a future where all people can live with dignity, security, and justice.