Fernando, center in blue blouse

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.

Restricted Social Roles

“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.”

Fernando is a lawyer and head of the Colombo-based Women’s Alliance for Peace and Democracy, an organization started in 2000 to boost female political representation in a country where women hold only 4 percent of the seats in parliament.

Since the tsunami she has been focusing on the role of gender and custom in the deaths of poor and rural women. Her staff is collecting stories from villagers who often tell them about women who were killed while putting family members or modesty above their own survival. Often, they hear that men survived by climbing trees to escape the swirling waters but that women were hindered from escaping by fear of tearing or losing their clothes and exposing themselves in a way that would have broken a strong cultural prohibition.

Fernando, who has worked for years with rural women, says that most of the village women who drowned in the huge wave were wearing traditional saris that restricted them from running and also weighed them down when they became waterlogged after the sea swept into their homes.

Saris Are Rural Dress Code

While the majority of women in the cities have adopted Western dress styles–pants and dresses with hemlines around the knee and higher–90 percent of poor and rural women wear saris on a daily basis, says Saganka Perera, a professor of sociology at Colombo University. Others may wear long dresses with sleeves.

“The gap between the rich and poor in Sri Lanka is vast not only on economical terms but also cultural,” says Perera. “Modernization has brought a westernized lifestyle for women in the big cities such as Colombo, and its suburbs. Women wear the latest fashions from the West and would not think twice wearing a miniskirt or T-shirts with spaghetti straps, in sharp contrast to rural areas where women are expected to dress modestly in traditional sari and look after their children.”

An even more important distinction, she says, is that in order to preserve their modesty, few rural women have been taught to swim. Rural women, Perera says, even bathe–usually at wells–while covered in long cloth.

Age-old cultural rules that demand women look after their babies and put family members first have also been attributed to more female deaths.

‘Last to Climb the Roof’

“I was the last to climb the roof of the house and the water was up to my waist dragging me down,” Mala Silva, a teacher in Tangalla, told Women’s eNews. “I was saved because both my hands were pulled strongly by my husband and elder daughter, who did not let me go in that terrible movement.”

Local media reports of women found dead, holding babies in their arms, suggest that many women were killed because they were carrying their children, which slowed their ability to run from the huge wave.

Volunteers cleaning the areas also report several deaths in which women appeared to have been pinned by their long hair to broken rubble.

Fernando says that despite modernization in Sri Lanka, village women in particular are expected to have long hair, a traditionally prized aspect of feminine beauty.

“Physically women are weaker than men but they were also restricted by so many other social and economic factors,” says Daya Dadallage, head of the Ruhunu Rural Women’s Organization, a small activist group in the south of the country. “This is why so many of them died.”

Dadallage, who runs training programs to help poor rural women find jobs, has launched similar programs for people who lost their means of income during the tsunami. She says an important part of her work now is offering psychological support to women who are now being stigmatized for surviving. Some are being blamed for losing their children or even bringing bad luck in the form of the tsunami itself.

“A young pregnant woman killed herself at a refugee camp because her husband kept scolding her for the deaths of their two children. She just felt too guilty to go on,” says Dadallage.

Suvendrini Kakuchi is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Tokyo. She visited tsunami disaster areas in the south and rebel-held northeastern coastal villages in Sri Lanka from Jan. 24 to Feb. 5.

For more information:

Rush Micro Aid to Women Hurt by Tsunami:

As Tsunami Recedes, Women’s Risks Appear: