Last week's earthquake off Sumatra, Indonesia brought back the terrifying memories of the December 26 earthquake and the devastation wreaked by the tsunami that followed which flattened coastal lands and drowned thousands of people from Indonesia to as far as the African continent. Yet, even though the prospect of more such tremors and tidal waves looms on the horizon, the full dimensions of the earlier disaster, its impact on the survivors and on the environment have yet to be assessed.

This most recent tremor has brought the focus back to the disaster-hit regions. It is fortuitous that just a week before this, the international charitable organisation Oxfam published a report looking specifically at the impact of the tsunami on women. Why, one might ask, is it necessary to do so given that earthquakes and tidal waves do not discriminate between men, women or children? But the story of almost every disaster is also a tale of the vulnerable and the excluded. Children and the elderly are obviously amongst the vulnerable. But women, even if they are physically vulnerable, are often excluded and overlooked.

The Oxfam report reveals that in three countries where the organisation conducted surveys — India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia — more women were killed than men. For instance, in the Aceh Besar district of Indonesia's Aceh province, the ratio of male to female survivors is 3:1. In four villages in North Aceh, researchers found that more than three fourths of the deaths were of women. In another village, of every male who died, four females had died. In Lampu'uk, located around 15 km from Banda Aceh, only 950 people survived out of a population of 6,000. Of these less than 200 were women. In one area, only four women were alive of whom three survived because they were out of town on that day.

In India

The picture in India is not much better. Official figures from Tamilnadu reveal that 2,406 women died as compared with 1,883 men. In Cuddalore, three times as many women as men were killed, states the report. In one village, Pachaankuppam, all the dead were women.

In Sri Lanka, although the government had not disaggregated the data along gender lines, Oxfam found the same pattern repeated itself.

Why did this happen? A common thread runs through the different regions that explains this. Women were at home on that Sunday morning while the men were either out in their boats at sea, and therefore escaped the waves, or were away from the shore doing other chores. Women stayed behind to help the children and the elderly when the waves struck. In Tamilnadu, women were actually waiting on the shore for the fishing boats to return as they help to sort the catch and then sell it. In Batticoloa district in Sri Lanka, the tsunami hit at a time when women would usually go into the water to bathe.

At a time when the main focus has shifted away from the tsunami-hit regions, it is fortuitous that a report has emerged looking specifically at the impact of disaster on women.
 •  Gender, media and tsunamis
Stories recounted by the survivors bring out another common factor. Women did not have the strength to hold on to a child and also hang on to a tree or something else to save themselves from being battered to death. They could not clamber up trees with the ease the men could. In all these places, it was evident that women lost precious minutes as they tried to gather all their children before attempting to escape the cascading waters.

What this means is that amongst the survivors, the majority are males. Given the dominant norms of socialisation, women are unlikely to push for their needs in a situation where even numerically they are the minority. As a result, only when someone asked them specifically, did their needs emerge. Oxfam found, for instance, that the location of the toilets and washrooms in the camps were one of the primary concerns of the women. They spoke of how fearful they were to go to toilets if they were some distance away. Some times, these areas were not adequately lit. In Sri Lanka, instances of rape and molestation have been reported in the camps from areas around the toilets.

Issue of livelihood

By virtue of being a minority amongst the survivors, women's specific needs in the area of livelihoods also could be overlooked. Male occupations are known and are compensated. Thus fishermen will get their boats. But what about women? Apart from the jobs women do as part of fishing communities, they had other occupations that brought in money into the family. As these women are not an organised group, it would be easy to forget their livelihood needs.

In this context, I recall a visit to Ahmedabad in 1985, to look at the impact of a man-made disaster, a communal riot, on women. In the old city, many homes had been gutted and destroyed. But the factor that the government and the media failed to acknowledge, even as they added up the losses incurred by the organised sector because of the riots, was the impact of the disturbances on women's livelihoods. Thousands of women had lost the tools of their trades. These included sewing machines, knitting and crochet instruments and their supplies of cloth and thread. These supplies had been taken against a loan calculated on how much of the finished product they would deliver. The women sewed together fabric scraps discarded by the textile mills and converted these into usable items. So if the raw material and the tools were gone, how would they ever get out of the debt trap? Until the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) intervened, this aspect would not have been recognised.

Hence the importance of reports like the Oxfam report. Of course, apart from livelihood and the immediate needs in the camps, there are likely to be long-term consequences of the gender imbalance created by the tsunami. What about violence, both within the home and outside? There are reports of men wasting the compensation amounts by drinking and then turning on the women if they ask for the money. What about widows? Will they get a share of the compensation? There have been reports that widows have not been able to access benefits because all papers are in the names of their dead husbands. What about women-headed households? Will there be special programmes to meet their specific needs? And will mothers give in to the growing pressure to marry off their young daughters at an earlier age because they do not want to carry the burden of feeding them? What then happens to efforts to increase female literacy and encourage girls to go to school?

Many, many questions. Some answers are emerging. But such tragedies remind us yet again that while nature might not discriminate, society still does.

Women's invisibility remains a constant factor. Until that changes, Oxfam and many others will have to continue pushing the "gender" angle.