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Tsunami 'a crushing blow to women'

The tsunami that overwhelmed Asia in December killed three times more women than men, and the resulting scarcity of female survivors has led to reports of forced marriages and rape, the British-based charity Oxfam International said Saturday.
Nasri, who is one of the few women remaining in her village, recalls the trauma of the tsunami during an interview, on Thursday, on the outskirts of Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Suzanne Plunkett / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The tsunami that overwhelmed Asia in December killed three times more women than men, and the resulting scarcity of female survivors has led to reports of forced marriages and rape, the British-based charity Oxfam International said Saturday.

Although official statistics do not provide the gender of victims, partial data indicates that many more women than men were among the 300,000 people killed or declared missing after the Dec. 26 tsunami devastated the coastlines of 11 countries around the Indian Ocean.

The impact on women was seen especially in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India. Indonesia, the country hardest hit by the earthquake-generated tsunami, now has villages where men now outnumber women 10-to-1.

“The tsunami has dealt a crushing blow to women and men across the region. In some villages it now appears that up to 80 percent of those killed were women,” said Becky Buel, Oxfam’s policy director. “This disproportionate impact will lead to problems for years to come unless everyone working on the aid effort addresses the issue now. We are already hearing about rapes, harassment and forced early marriages.”

The report concluded that women suffered disproportionately because they had a more difficult time outrunning the surging waters or the bad luck of being at home while the men were out at sea fishing or in the fields working.

Women vulnerable
As a result, men now far outnumber women in crowded camps and scattered settlements, and the women are vulnerable to a range of abuses, the report said. Sri Lankan women reportedly have been sexually assaulted in camp toilets and domestic violence is on the rise, the report found.

Indonesian women, according to Oxfam and women activists, are being sexually harassed in camps, forced or rushed into marrying much older men and victimized by abusive Indonesian soldiers, who reportedly have strip-searched them.

“We know of at least three marriages in which women married older widowers. What we don’t know is how forced it was,” said Ines Smyth, gender adviser for Oxfam.

“When we asked them, they say they have an obligation to their family and were frightened for the future. If you lost everything you had, including your family, it’s very difficult to refuse whatever is being offered, whether it’s protection or the possibility of a house.”

Indonesian activists claim it is difficult to get women to talk about the abuse or report it to authorities. The few women left in coastal settlements interviewed said they were unaware of any abuse, and they were focusing on rebuilding their lives.

The Aceh province’s hard-hit coast is dotted with the remnants of villages dominated by widowers. Lamsenia, a once-thriving fishing and farming village of 833 on the west coast, now has only 35 women among its 158 survivors, and all but one of those women have moved elsewhere. Gampong Pandee, on the edge of the provincial capital Banda Aceh, was reduced from 1,139 people to 246 — with only 20 women.

Long-lasting effects
Such radical changes in a village’s population will likely alter a community for good, activists say, with men put in a difficult position of leaving a village to restart a family or bringing newcomers into what often was a very tight-knit community.

The tsunami also could adversely impact poor widowers in places like Lamsenia. Most would like to remarry and start a new family, but they have no money for the costly dowry and no immediate prospects of resuming their jobs as rice farmers, traders or fishermen.

“What we need is women but we also need money to get them,” said Mohammed Ali, a 50-year-old sand miner from Lamsenia whose wife and five of his six children were killed in the tsunami. “We also need a house. If we have a wife and no shelter, it means nothing.”

Survivors in Lamsenia and Gampong Pandee say they mostly miss the chatter and laughter of the women. There is no one to do the cooking, the washing and, most of all, to keep them company at night.

For 26-year-old Indra Saputra, the tsunami was especially painful. A day before it hit, he and his pregnant wife had celebrated their wedding with a party for the entire village.

Now, she is gone and the prospects of doing it all over again are difficult to comprehend.

“I’ll eventually get married because it’s too traumatic to be alone,” he said. “For now, I have to get this village back to normal and rebuild my home. But it’s difficult because I’ve got no one to share things with.”