The tsunami that struck the coast of Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004, has had a major
impact on the social, traditional and customary role of women in the country.
It has not merely reinforced the traditional role of women as home makers, but also
given them an opportunity to play a key role rebuilding the family in particular and the
society at large. In many cases women now play the role of mother as well as the head
of the family, trying to make both ends meet.
Previously, women had a secure, sheltered life in a traditionally conservative Sri Lankan
society, where they were confined to the kitchen and supporting the income of the family
by carrying out tasks that were either home bound or in another secured atmosphere like
a weaving centre or a small shop close to the house.
This was perhaps one of the main reasons for the large number of women getting killed
by the tsunami. According to rough estimates, as gender disaggregated data of victims
the tsunami is still not available in Sri Lanka, almost 80 per cent of those killed in the
tsunami were women.
Most people who live by the sea are good swimmers, but a majority of women belonging
to the fishing community in Sri Lanka do not know swimming. Women are also not
taught to climb trees. The lack of swimming skills and inability to climb the coconut trees
resulted in loss of lives of thousands of women and children. Survivors say that the
traditional Sarees and tightly wrapped long skirts that most women wear in Sri Lanka
prevented them from running away or even attempting to swim or climb the tree.
Described as the weaker sex, women have been deprived of learning skills that could be
life saving in the event of disasters like the tsunami.
According to a press report citing village elder Kanapathipilli Soundararajan of Batticoloa
District, women made up the majority of the 1,300 bodies recovered in that area. The
account of Daisy Lowe, of the Sri Lankan Association of South Wales, tells a similar
story. She conducted a count at a camp in Batticoloa and found 1,589 surviving men and
boys present, but only around 1,000 women and girls. (“The tsunami’s impact on
women” ; Oxfam GB Briefing Note)
Even on March 28, during the mass evacuation of people from the coastal areas of Sri
Lanka in the wake of an earthquake in Sumatra, which sparked off a tsunami warning in
the South and Southeast Asian region, at least 10 people were in road accidents, a
majority of them women.
IMPACT OF THE TSUNAMI ON WOMEN
Beside the fact that a majority of the 31,000 killed by the tsunami in Sri Lanka were
women, as usual they have borne the worst impact of the disaster.
Women feel safe and secure in the confines of their homes, surrounded by their families.
The waves shattered their homes and their lives. Within a matter of 30 minutes three
large waves washed away thousands of houses and rendered nearly half a million
homeless all along the coastline of the Indian ocean Island. Having lost their houses,
families moved to public buildings and places of worship in search of shelter. The loss of
home made women more vulnerable. They felt insecure in a new environment, which
also lacked basic amenities. However, they had to cope with the situation while waiting
for immediate relief that was provided by voluntary organizations and philanthropic
Life was not easy for women in these temporary accommodations. Aid agencies tried
their best to provide toilets and other basic facilities to the displaced population, but this
was barely sufficient.
Saraswathi was displaced from the Dutch Bar area of Batticaloa. She now
resides in a school building in the town. “There are very few toilets and women
have problems accessing these toilets. Moreover, we all have to sleep together
and there’s just no privacy.”
The biggest fear in the minds of displaced women was the lack of security. Most of the
temporary shelters provided to the families did not have electricity. After sunset most
women and girls were scared to go to the toilet, which have been constructed away from
the shelters. The fear of being violated was uppermost in the minds of women. Non
governmental organizations working with women have reported violence against women
in the camps, including rape. There were reports of young girls being lured away from
the camps on the pretext of providing them with dry ration and clothes. In the southern
district of Galle, a woman lodged a complaint of mass rape with the police, but the police
have not reported any action on this matter.
To assuage the fears of camp dwellers, the government handed over the security of
these camps to the Army, Navy and the Police Special Task Force. After the security
forces took over the responsibility, not many reports of rape or sexual assault have been
made. In many far flung camps, men have taken the responsibility of protecting the
women. At Alles Garden Camp in the eastern Trincomalee district, men take turns
patrolling the camp. In spite of these arrangements, women still feel insecure because
they have lost their houses and also the livelihood.
Although traditionally men are the breadwinners in the family, women too play a
significant role in supplementing the family income, while attending to daily chores. Most
commonly women run small grocery shops either at their door step or close to their
houses. Many women in the fishing community are involved in drying and packaging dry
fish. Similarly, women are also iinvolved in making coir and lace embroidered products
and hand crafted items. Women along the coastline have lost their shops, lace making
units and other livelihoods.
Incidentally, women are also one of the biggest foreign exchange earners for Sri Lanka.
Thousands of Sri Lankan women are working mostly in the Middle East as house maids
and their remittances support the families back home. Many of these women have also
become victims of the tsunami, as they have lost their families while they were away in
the Gulf countries. Many of them have returned to their families, who are now in camps
and temporary shelters. The money these women had sent home to construct houses
and provide better facilities for their children to study have been lost to the tsunami.
Ameena left her family three years ago to work in Kuwait. “I had sent money to
build a house. My husband got the house constructed and he lived there with our
three children and my mother. We have lost everything, the house has collapsed
and my mother was taken away by the waves.”
Pregnant women and young mothers are particularly disadvantaged because of the
difficulty in access to medial assistance. The worst affected are those women who have
lost their husbands, children and in some cases the entire family.
The loss of head of the family has suddenly catapulted these widows into a new role.
They have to fend the family and look for a new livelihood. Women from the fishing
community cannot go out fishing so they are trying to find some alternative source of
Insecurity has driven these widows to take shelter with their relatives. Some of the
widow women have moved to adjoining or far away places to live with their relatives.
They have been deprived of compensation and the monthly benefits that are paid by the
government to the affected families, as many have not registered themselves with the
local government authorities. Some women who have returned have been told that they
were not present when the authorities were registering the affected families; therefore
they were not eligible for the financial compensation and the monthly support payment.
Palliyamma Sinnaiah is in a camp in Batticaloa. The other survivors in the camp
keep a watchful eye on this 60-year-old woman because she is threatening to
“I was picked up by some people who were in a boat, but I saw my husband and
children getting washed away by the sea. Now I have nobody to live for. I have
lost my entire family. I have no reason to live.”
Many such widows may not get the permanent houses that the government plans to
build for all those who have lost their homes. As they are not registered with the district
government as beneficiaries, they will not be provided the alternative accommodation.
Widows are forced to depend on other families for assistance. The dependency has also
resulted in insecurity as women are obliged to depend on men outside their family. Also,
some of these women fear that the properties owned by their husbands may not be
transferred to them and that the relatives – that unscrupulous people would grab the land
and other belongings.
Loss of livelihood and changed living circumstances has also increased instances of
domestic violence. With mounting alcohol abuse in the camps, women have become
even more vulnerable to abuse at home.
In spite of these odds, women have emerged stronger than men in the post-tsunami
situation. They are not merely doing the daily chores in the camps and transitional
shelters; women are also taking up the responsibility of rebuilding their lives.
“In the first shelter we built I have visited a few families and I found two men who were
completely disoriented. One had lost three children and the second one had lost two
children. The men sat staring blankly. Wives of these men seemed better able to cope
as they were able to speak,’’ (Reflections by Pearl Stephen, Chairperson Women’s
The biggest challenge before these women is to cope with the situation, while being the
fulcrum of the family. They have to support the children and other members of the family,
in many cases elder parents or in-laws.
Women are the nearest and more dependable counselors a family can find immediately.
In many families women have begun playing the role of a counselor for their children.
Overcoming their own pain and suffering, women patiently listen to their children and
advise them. Coping with the camp life or life in a small accommodation made of
galvanized tin sheets and wooden planks is not easy. Its women who spend more time
at home than men and children. While men are away looking for employment, women do
They are also supplementing the income of their families by taking up work at Cash For
Work programs launched by aid agencies that are building temporary shelters.
In many families, young girls have taken up the role of mothers for their siblings. They
look after the needs of their younger siblings while doing the domestic chores in the
absence of their mother, who either works to supplement the family income or was killed
in the tsunami. Some women have taken charge of children who have lost their
mothers, this strengthening the social support structure within the camp society.
In Marathamunai area of Ampara district several Muslim women have returned to
weaving cloth. Aided by the Women’s Development Centre, these women have been
able to reestablish their weaving centre, though at a much lower scale and are producing
traditional sarees, sarongs, bed sheets and other material at an affordable price. Here
too, widow women are faced with the problem of rebuilding their lives, but most of them
have emerged stronger than expected. They have taken charge of the family and are
trying to find a suitable livelihood.
The lack of knowledge of law is turning out to be a major handicap for women. Most of
them are unaware of their entitlements and of the laws of inheritance. They face possible
exploitation in the courts by middlemen on whom they would depend for completing the
ADDRESSING GENDER NEEDS IN SRI LANKA
While planning the long-term action, an assessment of the needs of women is absolutely
essential. The non governmental organizations could empower women by implementing
programmes that empower them and help them overcome their grief.
· Ensuring proper electricity and sanitation facilities for women who are still in
welfare centres and camps. Women have become more vulnerable after the
disaster and need to feel safe and adequately provided for.
· Supply of undergarments and sanitary pads until families are able to get back
their livelihood and provide for themselves.
· Women should be consulted while planning and building temporary or transitional
· Community consultation and formation of women’s groups while deciding about
permanent housing. The tsunami disaster is unlikely to change the role of women
in the society. They would continue to play their traditional role of homemakers.
Therefore, the permanent housing plan should incorporate the suggestions of
· Health care should be provided to women, especially old and pregnant women.
Mobile health clinics could be an option worth considering. Awareness
programmes for sexual and reproduction health should be undertaken.
· Train women to become midwives as new communities have formed due to
· Assist women in obtaining death certificates, title deeds and other documents to
claim their right to property. In Sri Lanka besides the Roman Dutch Law, there is
the customary law which deals with inheritance. In case these laws obstruct
smooth inheritance, an advocacy campaign for amendment could be taken up. In
the north there is a different set of laws called Desavalame which governs
marriage and inheritance.
· Livelihood programmes and skills training for women are essential as this could
supplement the household income. In case of women-headed households
special attention needs to be paid to the requirements of the family.
· Creation of support groups within the community to help single parents. A
number of men have lost their wives. They have to take care of their children.
The support groups would be of great help to such parents. Similarly these
groups could help widow women too.
· Assist migrant women workers returning home. Women migrant workers form
almost 80 per cent of the Sri Lankan workers employed overseas. Most of them
are working as domestic help in the Middle East. Amongst them a majority is
from the coastal areas and their families have suffered. Livelihood and skills
training needs to be extended to these women also as it is likely that when they
return home they might find themselves homeless or destitute.
· Women should be trained in responding to early warning systems. Men are
mostly away at work and also alcohol abuse is a major social problem in the
country. It would be wise to build the capacity of women in the coastal areas to
understand early warnings and respond to these in time.
* Ravi R. Prasad is a political commentator based in Colombo specializing in South Asia,
South East Asia and has reported from the Balkans. He writes on political and security
issues for the Security Watch of the International Relations and Security Network and
United Press International. He has also been published in Peace and
Conflict Monitor (www.monitor.upeace.org)