Ritu Sharma

(WOMENSENEWS)–With the first anniversary of the Boxing Day tsunami just behind us, we are all left facing the new year with the aftermath of that year of disasters–from Sri Lanka to the United States to Pakistan–still all around us. One sad constant across each event was the huge toll these catastrophes took on women.

Coming back from a recent trip to the ravaged Sri Lankan coastline, I am more cognizant than ever of how natural disasters impact women severely and in specific ways that are often not recognized, especially during reconstruction phases after the crises have faded from the news.

I was inspired by how women who are still living in tents have become experts at holding their families together with very little. I also saw how local women’s groups are helping women pick up the pieces by not only giving them loans to start businesses, but also training them in management and accounting skills so they have the confidence to grow businesses. This kind of slow locally led work is the most sustainable route to rebuilding women’s lives.

Women comprised the majority of those killed by the tsunami; in some areas survivors were male by a ratio of 3 to 1. It was a Sunday morning, and not surprisingly most women were home with their families and children, near the coastline. Many of the men were fishermen away at sea–an often dangerous place but on that day one of the safest–or were working in fields or running errands.

When the wave hit without warning, women could not run fast enough since they were carrying children, caring for elderly relatives or were hobbled by their long, flowing clothes. Women had a harder time climbing trees and many simply did not know how to swim.

Money Is Great Protector

But an even more basic reason so many more women were killed is that women are the vast majority of the world’s poor and money is the great protector. Money builds better houses, in better-protected areas. Disasters compound women’s poverty by making many more women the sole heads of households, responsible for the care of their children (and orphans), elderly dependents and extended family members. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, women were among the most vulnerable again. A quarter of the women of New Orleans lived below the poverty line, compared to 20 percent of men. Nearly two in every five female-headed households in New Orleans lived in poverty. As a result, women and children formed a majority of the people caught in dire circumstances after the hurricane hit.

Women in developing countries have additional challenges, since their lives are very dependent on natural resources. Agriculture is the main employer of women, for example, and women spend many hours a week walking miles to cart water on their heads and backs for their families. When disasters destroy or contaminate local natural resources, and nations cannot afford to provide social safety nets for their citizens, getting life back on track is especially hard for women. And because women own very little property relative to men, they are often left with no personal assets to fall back on.

Violence Increases After Disasters

To add insult to injury, violence against women usually rises dramatically in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. In Nicaragua, 27 percent of female survivors of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 reported increased violence within the family. After the Loma Prieta earthquake in California in 1999, reported sexual assaults rose fourfold.

There can be other social consequences. In many areas in tsunami-affected Asia, the severe shortage of women has meant many hastily arranged marriages between men with children and younger women from outside the area and pressure on women to have children to make up for the tremendous loss of life.

All of this has meant that women are having an even harder time having their voices heard during the long slog of reconstruction. Large infrastructure development projects usually follow disasters as destroyed bridges and roads are rebuilt. Women usually have little say in planning these projects, do not land major contracts and usually only get marginal jobs as bricklayers or porters.

Assistance Must Focus on Women’s Needs

International assistance for rebuilding communities must focus on women’s specific needs as much as on fixing physical damage.

When the Women’s Edge Coalition asked women in tsunami-affected areas earlier this year what their priorities were, they specified small grants to restart their lives and businesses, but also pointed out that the local community organizations they depended on most for support had also been destroyed. In response to this, we worked with members of Congress to set aside $10 million of official U.S. reconstruction assistance in March this year for women, to be routed through local women’s organizations. My trip in November has reinforced my belief, and documented research, which shows that locally led and women-focused development is the best answer to natural disasters.

Poverty is the main reason that women are so vulnerable to disasters in the first place. Even in the poorest communities, though, women reinvest any extra income they have in the health care, education and nutrition of their families. Investing in women, and giving them a prominent voice and role in reconstruction, is the most effective way to help a community recover from calamity.

Ritu Sharma is president and co-founder of the Women’s Edge Coalition, a Washington-based advocate for the world’s poorest women. Women’s Edge worked with Congress to earmark $10 million in post-tsunami reconstruction assistance for women.

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