Deepa Kandaswamy

TRICHY, India (WOMENSENEWS)–A Sri Lankan woman who sought refuge in the tsunami shelter was sexually assaulted. The account of this woman and many others with terrible stories to tell were published in the Oxfam report released in March. But, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the first time you are hearing of this, because women have lost in two tsunamis–the natural and the media.

On Dec 26, 2004, when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck, media trucks rolled into my state and other countries that were affected.

The only respectable coverage was by the radio stations. Right from the beginning they told affected people where to go, gave news of missing persons, told others where to drop off aid material and what was needed and not needed in relief shelters.

But the TV new anchors from around the world made a mockery of the dead, killing them again and again by beaming old footage of disheveled bodies of the dead women and children who had already been buried.

It appeared the world media were competing for an Oscar for “Best Picture” in Disaster category, with women–wailing or dead–the star attraction.

There was also quite clearly a double standard on whose dead bodies were over-exposed. While those of women from the developing world were shown over and over, international and local TV practiced discretion when it came to western tourists lost in the disaster.

After all that, within two months the media tide had pulled way back. If you read a newspaper or watched TV in February you might never have known the tsunami had even happened.

Reports of rehabilitation, if any, carried nothing about women. The female face that the world media had put on the tsunami was somehow forgotten. Affected women had become invisible.

Oxfam Report Issued in March

In March, Oxfam issued a report on the gender imbalance as the affected majority of the people, both in terms of who had died and who were having the hardest time recovering. This report must have received some press attention somewhere, but I couldn’t find any mention of it, certainly not in the mainstream press or the U.S., British, or Asian TV channels that I checked.

At the South East Asian Press Alliance conference, held in Phuket, Thailand, in late April the topic was naturally the media’s role in the tsunami, for this was the first major disaster for most of them. Little attention was paid to the scant coverage that women’s woes had received in the aftermath except in informal discussions.

“You’re being gender sensitive,” a Sri Lankan male presenter told me, when I questioned the lack of coverage of crimes against women.

A Sri Lankan woman can be sexually assaulted in a rehabilitation shelter–as the Oxfam report documents–and covering the lack of safety for women in these shelters is “gender sensitive”?

No. The truth is it’s insensitive to all our humanity for reporters to show someone’s mother, daughter, wife or lover wailing or dead in December and then not bother to report the crimes committed against women a few months later.

Students, Freelancers Take Over

For their post-tsunami coverage, many news outlets and Non-Governmental Organizations, in what I consider a disturbing trend, are offering media fellowships and paid assignments to freelancers, local journalists or students to spend time on post-tsunami stories instead of sending in regulars.

Now that we need it, where has the major media gone?

Sustained media coverage is now more important than ever to monitor aid distribution and how aid agencies handle those affected, especially the girls. Politically speaking, the aftermath of a disaster is always a critical time, as this is when policies are formulated and when corruption and abuse can begin to occur when no one is around to keep an eye on it.

“Leave the women ghetto mentality, Deepa,” an Indian female journalist at the conference advised me. “This sort of thinking isn’t going to get you anywhere. People died, not just women. Why should the media concentrate on the women?”

While many nodded in agreement, I wondered if the myopia was on my part or theirs.

Yes, people died, but if you read the Oxfam report you will see that far more women than men were killed. In Aceh, Indonesia, for instance, more than 75 percent of those who died were women, and among the survivors the male-female ratio is 3:1.

Important Demographic Change

The point isn’t to get into a morbid contest over body counts. But it is important to note that the scale of the disaster has brought about a demographic change.

India already has a shortage of women, with a national average of 939 women for every 1000 men (2001 census), so in places hit by the tsunami that ratio must now be assumed to be extremely lopsided, as in other affected areas. In one Aceh village, there are 114 surviving males and only 45 surviving women.

Such drastic demographic changes bring consequences. In all these countries, the sudden death of a large number of women, many of them mothers, has worsened the problems of infant mortality, early marriage of girls, neglect of girls’ education, trafficking in women and prostitution.

In other words, all the aspirations for women and girls that 189 countries ratified in 2000 under the U.N. Millennium Development Goals have received a setback.

All lives that were lost matter. But the survivors shouldn’t be punished for living.

The world media cannot turn blind and deaf now. The women are outnumbered and they need to be heard, especially now that they are abused, assaulted and their fundamental rights violated in affected areas.

Deepa Kandaswamy is a writer based in Trichy, India.

For more information:

Oxfam International – Oxfam Briefing Note March 2005
The tsunami’s impact on women

In Tsunami, Women Put Modesty Above Survival:

As Tsunami Recedes, Women’s Risks Appear: