Tsunami survivors in Males, the Maldives

(WOMENSENEWS)–When the deadly tsunami stole the lives of 150,000 people, it also swept away the structures of established communities, leaving female survivors newly vulnerable to a wide range of threats.

Reports of rape and violence against women and children in the affected areas have been accumulating, but women also face basic health problems due to a lack of personal hygiene products and maternal care.

Several groups are working to build public awareness of the dangers faced by women and girls in the hardest-hit countries of Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Maldives, and to raise funds specifically earmarked to protect not only women’s physical safety, but also their health, dignity and psychological well-being.

“Millions of people have been left homeless, but women’s special needs need to be addressed from the outset,” says David del Vecchio, a spokesperson from the United Nations Population Fund, based in New York.

Sri Lankan Groups Issues Appeal

A collective of women’s rights groups in Sri Lanka has issued a written appeal for public attention to “serious issues concerning the safety and well-being of women which have not been addressed so far in relief efforts.”

The five-party group, which includes the Sri Lanka Women’s NGO Forum and the Women’s Alliance for Peace and Democracy, expressed appreciation towards international aid efforts, but urged that these efforts be “refocused” to address violence against women and the needs of vulnerable communities, such as pregnant or lactating women and unaccompanied children.

Some of the worst breaches of women’s rights were outlined earlier this week by the Women and Media Collective group, a women’s organization based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

“We have received reports of incidents of rape, gang rape, molestation and physical abuse of women and girls in the course of unsupervised rescue operations and while resident in temporary shelters,” the group said in a statement circulated to the international press.

These claims are raising concerns at MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization based in New York.

Yifat Susskind, associate director for MADRE, says that these allegations reflect what typically happens during turmoil. “When communities are under stress, you tend to get a huge upsurge in domestic violence,” she says. “We’re seeing what we always see in the wake of a disaster: Things start to unravel and people snap.” Susskind says that in a crisis, the mechanisms that are usually in place to prevent rape, violence and molestation have disappeared. There are no family members to protect women and girls, no homes in which to hide, and fewer police and armed forces to dissuade would-be criminals.

Violence Warnings from Sri Lanka

MADRE has received similar reports warning about violence against women in displacement camps from INFORM, a Sri Lankan umbrella organization based in Colombo.

In response, MADRE has been appealing to donors and raising money to send to INFORM, which is capable of reaching out immediately to many different communities throughout the region. MADRE staffers declined to say how much money they have raised so far. They say the money will be used to establish and equip emergency health centers that will provide survivors with emergency medical attention, clean drinking water and trauma counseling.

The World Health Organization has said that to fully implement the key activities of their public health strategy, which include access to essential healthcare and a replacement of medical supplies, at least $60 million is urgently required.

Based on their experience with other international crises, staffers at both UNFPA and MADRE said that after any disaster, women in the ravaged society face new pressures.

Women are responsible for attending to the sick, as well as providing care to the elderly and children. These incremental responsibilities can prevent women from getting to distribution sites for food and medicine and from attending to their own personal needs. This is especially true in this disaster. Since so many fishermen were lost at sea, thousands of widows are left alone. Deprived of mates and livelihoods they are left to provide for remaining members of their families.

“The burden falls on women to provide those basic necessities,” says Susskind. “At the same time, their needs get sacrificed most when those supplies are scarce.”

Pregnancies at Risk

UNFPA, which focuses on reproductive health, has estimated that out of the 5 million people directly affected by the tsunami, at least 150,000 need urgent medical and nutritional support because they are pregnant or facing complications of pregnancy, including trauma-induced miscarriage. “Hardly anyone in the population is getting enough food, and this is especially a concern for pregnant women who need extra nutrition and vitamins,” says del Vecchio.

Over 50,000 women within the affected communities are expected to give birth in the next three months. Their ability to deliver under safe and clean circumstances will be jeopardized by the tsunami’s destruction of health facilities and loss of medical tools.

Many of these communities have traditionally relied on midwives to provide home-based delivery support, and those midwives who have survived the disaster may find their mobility severely hampered and may not be able to reach the women who need them. These problems pile on top of the already dire situation faced by standard 15 percent of pregnancies that involve labor or other birthing complications.

Women and girls who aren’t pregnant are still susceptible to gynecological and reproductive health problems. Hygiene needs are often overlooked in times of crisis, but inadequate supplies–such as a shortage of tampons and sanitary napkins for menstruating women–may hinder mobility as well as personal dignity and can prevent women and girls from getting the care and supplies they need.

Launching a Major Appeal

UNPFA is trying to make sure that aid is earmarked for women in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Thailand and India. To start, UNPFA has made available $3 million for the provision of the most basic maternity and hygiene support for women throughout the region. The fund has also launched a major appeal to donors to address immediate needs, and to help countries get through the acute phase of the first six months. “The $3 million is seed money,” says del Vecchio. UNFPA began issuing appeals yesterday, on Jan. 6, for more money to fund specific projects in each country.

Last July, the Bush administration decided to withhold all $34 million of congressionally approved funding for the United Nations Population Fund. 2004 was the third year in a row the administration blocked the funding.

UNFPA says that it is working with organizations on the ground to provide relief. As footage from tsunami-affected regions on television shows, however, crowds can be intense and frantic, so he expects difficulties in making sure that supplies make it to the hands of female heads of households.

Del Vecchio brings up another challenge. Women, he says, are often put in a position to barter for supplies, he says, and sometimes they barter themselves sexually, to feed their children. Del Vecchio says one way to ensure fair distribution of supplies is to put women in charge.

“We have found that women are good at aid distribution. They know family by family, who needs what. In addition, putting women in charge makes them less vulnerable to molestation.”

Corrie Pikul is a staff reporter for Women’s eNews.

For more information:

MADRE: An international women’s human rights organization:

United Nations Population Fund:

The Women and Media Collective:

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