By Suvendrini Kakuchi
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
As aid workers in Sri Lanka consider the sad statistics left by the tsunami, they say that customs in poor, rural villages that tie women to a strict standard of modesty and caretaking were a major cause of death.
TANGALLA, Sri Lanka (WOMENSENEWS)--In a just a few moments, Supini Jayaweera, 17, and her three younger siblings became orphans when the tsunami swept away their parents and their small wattle-and-brick home on Dec. 26 in this bustling fishing village on the southern coast of Sri Lanka.
"The terrifying experience will remain in my life forever," says the shy teenager who, as tradition demands, must now take on the role of her parents to her two brothers and 8-year-old sister.
The hardest part of Supini's story is the death of her mother. More than a month later, she still chokes through her tears as she recalls the way her 36-year-old mother disappeared.
"The water came with a huge force, moving like an angry monster across the sand and into the home. My mother helped my younger brother to tear off his shorts to swim away, but she didn't follow. She was just too modest to remove her clothes to escape," says Supini.
While official statistics are not yet available, grassroots organizations helping with relief operations in Sri Lanka say women and children were the majority of the 30,000 total deaths currently tied to the tsunami.
Many of the losses are being tied to gender roles and styles--such as women's long hair, confining saris, extreme sense of modesty and selfless commitment to husbands and children--that hindered their ability to escape.
"Traditional social roles restrict women to being wives and mothers," says Nimalka Fernando. "When a daughter is born she is groomed to be modest and devoted to her husband and children. This caused so much harm to women during the tsunami."