Women Tough It Out in Post-Disaster Situations

By Tess Bacalla

Women are known to bear the brunt of disasters. No sooner after a calamity hits does their workload increase significantly as their traditional role of being caregivers is stretched to accommodate the heightened needs of others. Yet all too often, the women’s own needs are overlooked, leading them to suffer at the very least high levels of stress. More worrisome though is how such neglect has put women more at risk of being subjected to domestic violence and sexual harassment, an increased incidence of which has been observed in some of the disaster-hit areas.

Yet despite their added burdens and increased vulnerability, women appear more aggressive than men in ensuring their families’ survival. Right after the disaster and even beyond the rehabilitation phase, women willingly take on even the most challenging of tasks just so their families would be able to eat for the day.

This report takes a look at the condition of two groups of women in the aftermath of two calamities — those in Aceh, Indonesia, one of the areas devastated by the December 26, 2004 tsunami; and those in Quezon, a province in the Philippines that was hit by a series of major typhoons between November and December 2004. This story also examines the response of both groups of women to the tragedies that had befallen them. Part 1 focuses on Aceh, while Part 2 visits the women in three towns in Quezon.

The magnitude of these women’s sufferings may vary, yet the pattern of neglect of their needs and concerns as well as their heavier workload — in and outside the home — was evident in both of their areas. Just as apparent, however, was the sheer determination of the women in Aceh and in Quezon to see their families through tragedy and to rebuild their own lives from the rubble.

Part 1: Resilience Amid Ruin

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia – Rahmi is about 14, but has already lost her world as she knew it. One can see it in her sad, soulful eyes, and in her inability to smile. And the reason is evident just by surveying what surrounds her here in this northwestern Sumatran city. Several months after the powerful Dec. 26, 2004 earthquake struck and triggered tsunamis in several parts of Asia, this once bustling coastal city remains desolate. In many areas, piles of rubble are the only proof that there were once houses and buildings there while in others muddy boats scattered willy-nilly far from the shore show just how strong the waves that swept into Banda Aceh were. There are also places where the stench of death still hangs in the air, even as a few men sort through the debris.

Save for a younger brother, Rahmi is all that is left of her family. She doesn’t know it yet, but Aceh’s female population in particular has been just as decimated. In fact, the tsunami didn’t just flatten this provincial capital and almost erased it from the map. It also altered the demographics of a place that was already a man’s world to begin with, and may have paved the way for a hard future for Rahmi, a life that will be more difficult than what her mother or grandmother had experienced.

The total death toll from the tsunamis that swamped coastal communities in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and India, along with seven other countries, was more than 220,000, according to international relief group Oxfam. Based on the Indonesia National Disaster Coordinating Board or NDCB, more than half of those deaths were from Aceh. Excluded in these figures, however, are the missing, which may be far more than the fatalities.

In many areas, including Aceh, majority of the missing or dead are women. In five villages in Aceh’s Lampu’uk subdistrict, the women’s group Flower Aceh says only 40 of the 750 survivors from a population of 5,500 are women. Other local non-governmental organizations and international aid groups have found similar statistics throughout other tsunami-affected communities in the province. Oxfam says that in four villages in Aceh Besar district, male survivors outnumber the females by a ratio of three to one. In four villages in North Aceh, the female death toll made up 70 percent of the fatalities. In Kuala Cangkoy, 80 percent of the dead were female.

Not surprisingly, men outnumber the women in the camps and barracks set up for “internally displaced people” or IDPs. International and local NGOs, as well as U.N. agencies, worry that if what is happening in these camps and barracks is any indication, the Acehnese women and girls who survived the deadly waves should brace themselves for what can lie ahead.

Heavier burdens, heightened risks of abuse

As in other Asian societies, women are the traditional caregivers in Aceh, and perform the household chores. They still perform such tasks in the camps, but these days their burden has become heavier because of the sheer number of men and children they are expected to serve and look after. Before the tsunami, each Acehnese household could probably count on more than a pair of female hands to do the chores. Today not only is that no longer true, women and girls are expected to help men who are not their relatives, if only because Acehnese males are “embarrassed to be seen doing housework,” says Tesmiati Emsa, who heads a women’s NGO based here. Another relief worker says some widowers left with children to look after simply could not cope with the idea of becoming caregivers even to their own offspring that they readily gave these up to an orphanage.

Meanwhile, NGOs and international aid agencies say many of the women have been subjected to sexual harassment and abuse, while some have found themselves becoming victims of physical violence wielded by bored or frustrated men. Erwin Setiawan of Flower Aceh says men are lashing out partly because of the stressful conditions in the barracks where there is a lack of privacy and where they are unable to practice their usual means of livelihood. But he offers no explanation why women, who are enduring the same conditions, are not reacting in the same way and instead are made to bear the brunt of the men’s pent-up emotions.

In fact, life in the camps and barracks is even more stressful to the women because, say several observers, their needs were not taken into consideration in designing these places. For instance, there are no separate toilets for men and women. Many of these have no roofs or are made from just plastic sheets or sacks, through which peepholes could easily be cut.

“I heard a lot of cases of men peeping while women were taking a bath in their temporary shelters,” says M.B. Wijaksana, editor in chief of Journal Perempuan, a Jakarta-based women’s magazine. He says he tried to check with the police whether they were aware of these cases, which he describes as forms of sexual harassment, and found that the authorities had somehow managed to escape hearing about them.

Personal supplies such as underwear and sanitary napkins have also apparently missed the list of basic needs provided in the shelters. The lack of supply of long-sleeved shirts and headscarves – essential to Acehnese women, who are predominantly Muslim like majority of the Indonesians – has also remained unchecked. In a press statement, the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) observed that in the face of such unmet needs, “women and girls become reluctant to carry out public activities and even access basic needs and humanitarian assistance.”

As if they didn’t have enough problems, the women in the shelters have also had to put up with the lack of clean water, which means they are usually forced to fetch some elsewhere and lug it back to their quarters. But according to UNFPA information officer in Indonesia Maria Hulupi, some barracks are in areas that make it dangerous for women to venture outside. As it is, the crowded, male-dominated environment has meant that women and girls have had to put up with being constantly teased and stared at.

Forced marriages

The setup of many of the shelters—with non-related men and women staying in the same tent or room together—has even lent itself to a trend many of the female IPDs do not welcome at all: forced marriages. Samsidar, who heads a subcommittee of the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), says young women are being pressured to marry males staying in the same tents or barracks. Such marriages have become “an informal rule,” she says. Journalist Wijaksana, for his part, says that the pressure to marry is greater on young single women because he says that in Aceh, virgins are preferred to widows, who tend to be looked down upon.

“For men the loss of a wife seems a simple thing,” he adds. Besides, says Wijaksana, the shariah law forbids women from remarrying within three months of the deaths of their spouses. Men can remarry any time. Nana of the Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries (Hivos) cites the case of a man in Meulaboh, located on the coast of Sumatra, who married his sister-in-law only a week after his wife disappeared as a result of the tsunami. He thought she was dead, says Nana. A month later, the wife resurfaced.

Oxfam says that especially for young women, forced marriage has serious implications on their education, livelihoods, and reproductive health. “Surviving women may also be encouraged to have more children, with shorter intervals between them, to replace those lost by the community,” it also says. “Again, this has consequences for their reproductive health and their ability to earn an independent income.”

Compared to the men, there are fewer Acehnese women who have had some education, since families give priority to sending the male children to school. This practice is rooted in the belief that the women’s best place is the home – even though they are not recognized as household heads. Hivos’s Nana says some of the women in the shelters who participate in cash-for-work activities have admitted to her that all they could do was cry when their husbands would not let them leave for work without first making sure that their homes were in order. Such was their fate, the women said.

The harsh truth is that the social position of women in Aceh accounts for their disproportionate number of deaths, say local and international NGO workers. Because the tsunami smothered the province on a Sunday, most of the women and children were at home while many of the men were out – socializing, running errands, or fishing. Other men had also not returned home for quite some time because their jobs were elsewhere. Ironically, 70 percent of Aceh’s pre-tsunami population consisted of women, because men were either being killed or were fleeing from the conflict between the Indonesian military and separatist rebels belonging to the Free Aceh Movement or GAM (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka).

But most Acehnese women, unlike the men, do not know how to climb trees or swim, say some observers. This made it difficult for them to escape the raging waters of that fateful day in December 2004. Yet even those who did know how to climb trees or could swim perished in the end because they were either dragged down by the sheer weight of the children and other family members that they tried so hard to save —in keeping with their traditional role as caregivers—or succumbed eventually to fatigue. Observers theorize that the long, flowing clothing that cover their arms and legs restricted the movement of the Acehnese women, frustrating their escape from the tsunami.

Finding their voice

Aid worker Nana of Hivos fears that Aceh’s women survivors could only become a weaker force now that their numbers have been diminished greatly, while men could emerge more dominant. Before the tsunami women were already reluctant to speak, especially in public gatherings. Even now, despite all the hardships they have had to endure in post-disaster Aceh, many women are hesitant to voice out their concerns.

But gender and poverty expert Yulfita Rahardjo says Acehnese women can strengthen their position if only they could be made aware of their rights. She concedes, though, that men will have to be educated as well on gender issues. In a gender training she conducted a few months ago in Jakarta for the subdistrict heads and planners in Aceh, she says it was evident that the participants — mostly male — did not understand the concept of gender and even blamed the women if they were not being heard, saying the women refused to talk.

Yet women in Aceh have not entirely kept mum about their needs and aspirations. Among others, some have expressed their desire to go back to their homes and start a small-scale business so they could rebuild their lives.

Nani Zulminarni, head of the women’s rights group Pekka (Program Pemberdayaan Perempuan Kepala Keluarga or Women-Headed Household Empowerment Program), says the women in the districts where her organization operates were unanimous in saying that they did not want to be dependent on others. Alongside their yearning to work is their dream to have a house again, a symbol of dignity, especially for Acehnese women.

“No one expressed desperation and hopelessnes

s,” says Zulminarni, who notes that providing livelihood is a very good starting point for empowering women. She says the grassroots women’s groups Pekka has helped have gained so much respect that their members are now being invited to important community gatherings. Says Zulminarni: “It’s a good sign.”

Sylvia Agustina, program officer of the U.N. Development Fund for Women (Unifem) says her vision for her fellow Acehnese women is not just for them to return to their “normal” lives. Agustina, who also lost a number of her loved ones to the tsunami, says, “I want them to have an option.”

Part 2: Women Lead the Way Toward Recovery

NAKAR, INFANTA and REAL, Quezon — She is the mother of 10 children, so Jasmine Suplido was used to having her hands full all the time. But since twin typhoons in late 2004 caused muddy waters and felled trees to tumble down the nearby mountains and wreak havoc in Quezon and neighboring provinces, the hours of the day — and night — have been hardly enough for the 46-year-old.

Today Suplido is not only busy looking after her brood and doing household chores, she has also had to look for whatever work she can find so that her family — including a husband who is more often than not without work these days — can survive.

In late November and early December 2004, typhoons Winnie and Yoyong devastated Aurora, Quezon and Nueva Ecija, northeast of Manila, leaving 1,300 people dead or missing and 432,000 displaced. Today thousands of families like the Suplidos are still coping with the after-effects of that disaster. While many have rebuilt their homes, most are still unable to work their farms, which are still in disrepair, or to return to their old jobs.

All too often, it is women like Jasmine Suplido who see their families — and communities — through the bad times. Aid and relief workers here have noted that while the men were still reeling from the psychological impact of the disaster, the women were already busy knocking on doors, looking for jobs, and working in relief programs. It has been the women who have put food on the table, even as they were still taking care of children and doing other domestic chores.

“Men take a bit longer to recover,” observed Ting Gorgonio of Oxfam, the international relief organization. Gorgonio stayed for several months in Quezon to oversee the implementation of Oxfam’s cash-for-work (CFW) program. “The (men) are fixated on what they used to do. This takes them longer to shift to an alternative livelihood.” When men asked for funding assistance, it was usually in relation to work they had been doing before disaster struck. But the women were willing to take on new challenges.

Suplido was a fish hawker for nearly 30 years, but she stopped some two years ago, shortly before giving birth to her youngest child. Severe pains from a possible kidney infection made walking long distances to sell fish more difficult, forcing her to take on a variety of less exacting jobs. Her husband looked after their neighbors’ coconut trees, which were farmed for copra or dried coconut kernel. But when the calamity struck and the family was left homeless and without any means of livelihood (the copra mill was among those destroyed by the log-choked floods), it was Suplido who took matters in her own hands and made sure the children were fed and clothed.

Since the disaster, many women in Quezon like Suplido have had to bear the brunt of heavier workloads even as their own health and other needs are overlooked. At the same time, there are signs that the experience of working outside the home has been empowering for many women and may even be causing a shift in gender roles. But local governments seem to have been slow to pick up on this trend and offer few livelihood opportunities for females as part of rehabilitation efforts in disaster-struck areas.

Gender issues consultant Jeanne Illo has thus been worried that unless the women themselves are able to muster energy to plod on or their communities and women’s groups in particular offer support, the women may lose any momentum they had gained in the course of helping rebuild their communities and become even more socially marginalized than they were before the disaster.

Shining through shambles

Lilian Mercado Carreon, Philippine program representative of Oxfam, said disasters offer an opportunity for women to shine in view of their socially constructed roles and the necessity that drives it. In fact, immediately after the floods dissipated, the women were either out looking for some chore they could do for a fee, such as clearing other homes of mud, or were queuing for relief goods for hours on end. The men were doing these, too, but there were more women patiently lining up at the relief centers, said observers here.

In addition, some women who eventually found work outside of the home said they finally learned to delegate some of their domestic responsibilities to their idle husbands and children.

The new set-up allowed the women to go out and do something else other than housework, said Gorgonio. It also enabled them to buy things from their own earnings instead of being, as economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen put it, “just passive recipients of welfare-enhancing help”. Sen has said that the “economic participation of women is both a reward on its own (with associated reduction of gender bias in the treatment of women in family decisions) and a major influence for social change in general”.

Even David Prudente Sr., the head of the a village called Batangan in Nakar, Quezon province couldn’t feel prouder of what the women in his community had achieved in the course of taking part in the communal activities organized by Oxfam. He said this was the first time he has seen this happen — women collectively participating in activities not traditionally associated with them. “They never backed down,” Prudente said with palpable admiration. In one community evaluation of Oxfam’s CFW program, which ended in July 2005, the men themselves acknowledged that the womenfolk had been “a big help”.

Much of the mud-and debris-clearing here in Quezon, for instance, had been done by women who participated in the CFW program, which ran for months after the disaster. The program’s target participants had actually been the male household heads. But wives were soon allowed to take the place of their husbands who had to work elsewhere — or for one reason or another refused to work, which has been the complaint of some women.
It became apparent to Oxfam that although women are more used to domestic chores, those in Quezon were ready to explore other types of work, including digging creeks, clearing roads, and hauling stones. Oxfam, however, acknowledged the limited physical capacity of the women to perform such tasks, and made the necessary adjustments while making sure they were properly compensated for their work.

Oxfam now reports that in some instances, the women even thought of alternative livelihoods rather than waiting for opportunities to come along. For example, some mothers in one barangay (village) came up with communal planting, in which they organized themselves to rent and work a piece of land so they could later sell the produce at the market. Some of them even approached Oxfam and submitted a one-page request for additional tools or fertilizers — a gesture the relief agency had not expected them to do.

Eager to earn

Notably, many of the women were doing double shifts, working for money all day and then accomplishing more chores once they got home. Although some women were lucky enough to get help from their husbands or children, most women had to take on an extra burden. One of Suplido’s neighbors, for example, said that she still does not get to sleep until 10 p.m., because she has to do housework after putting in a full day as a live-out help for another family. She also makes sure she wakes up early — at four a.m. — so she could clean the house and prepare her brood’s food before leaving for work.

Yet no matter how tired the women have been, many of them have been extremely pleased over being able to earn and help support the family. A Philippine National Red Cross program officer said women are excited to take on new roles, because doing so empowers them and takes them out of their homes. And so when the Red Cross needed volunteers to repack relief goods for distribution, it was the women who readily stepped forward. When the organization initiated disaster-management training in some villages here in Quezon, among the most eager volunteers were women, one of whom was more than 60 years old but who was determined to complete the five-day course — and did. Oxfam has also reported that women far outnumbered the men during community meetings in which livelihood concerns were discussed.

“Women are braver,” explained Marita Tena, adding that her own husband was rather faint of heart and feared for the future following the tragedy that befell people here. Tena herself was decidedly more optimistic, chirping in Tagalog, “While there’s life, there’s hope.”

Nila Junio’s husband was similarly paralyzed by the psychological impact of the disaster. He fell ill soon after the typhoon struck and log-heavy floods destroyed their 1.5-hectare ricefield and piggery. He became depressed, said his wife, and is still in a state of shock. Junio, a 52-year-old mother of three, thus began driving a tricycle, although she admitted it has been hard feeding her family and keeping the children in school with just the P150 (roughly 3 U.S. dollars) she earns each day. Experts warned it would take years before the damaged rice fields, like those of the Junios, could be suitable again for rice cultivation.

Arlene Mallari’s husband left the family home after the couple had a misunderstanding. Mallari, who had to tend to their two small children, decided to take his place at the Oxfam cash-for-work program while he was away. She had to leave the children with neighbors or take a makeshift hammock to work, but as she commented, “Women are less likely to pass up income opportunities.” Her husband resurfaced only after several days had passed.

In search of livelihoods

But since Oxfam’s cash-for-work program ended months ago, women here have had great difficulty finding sources of income. Tena, who was one of the CFW participants in Barangay Batangan in Nakar, also used to do laundry for four families, netting her 2,500 pesos (48 dollars) monthly. That income is all but gone, since her clients have themselves become hard-up since the 2004 floods. Tena, who is also a village health worker receiving 50 pesos (less than one dollar) as monthly allowance, said she has not stopped exploring other sources of income even if it means asking strangers if they need a laundrywoman. She is hoping to take out a loan so she could set up a store; no loan assistance, however, has been extended to her community.

Meanwhile, Suplido, who was also a CFW participant, now helps her husband produce charcoal. Given a choice, she said, she would not do it, knowing the risks it poses to one’s health due to constant exposure to heat (or sheer exposure to carbon monoxide, to be more precise). The danger, of course, is not only to her health but also to the land she, her family and her community especially need these days to survive. Once burned, it could cease from hosting any life.

Yet what she and her husband earn from charcoal making, around 500 pesos (9.6 dollars) for a week’s worth of labor, cannot even cover the 800 pesos (15.40 dollars) she needs to undergo an ultrasound test, which would either confirm or refute her doctor’s suspicions that she has kidney stones.

Suplido is constantly in pain, but her health anxieties come a poor second to her concerns for her family. They still eat three meals a day, but they are now dining only on rice mixed with sugar or bagoong (a condiment made from shrimp or small fish) or boiled vegetables. Worse, her toddler has had to go without milk. Three of Suplido’s sons have had to stop schooling.

Random interviews with several women in Quezon revealed that they would have liked more skills training to give them more opportunities to earn. Based on their performance in the Oxfam cash-for-work program, though, the resourcefulness of Quezon’s women could well see them through even in the absence of such training. Gorgonio said the women simply learned on the job, and produced sterling results, even if they had to do backbreaking work like building irrigation canals.

“We had no time to provide them training, yet they managed,” she said. “When we asked some technical consultants to check their work, they were surprised to find the quality of the women’s work (as good). They were happy with what they saw.”

“Female-free” post-disaster plans

Still, it would help if local governments were more appreciative of what women here have achieved following the 2004 calamity. But even as the first anniversary of the disaster had passed, the rehabilitation plans of Real, Infanta and Nakar towns, which had been most affected by the floods, still had no specific components for women. One relief agency officer commented that the plans were focused mostly on infrastructure, while the few livelihood programs were still targeting men.

The issue, said Oxfam’s Carreon, is providing livelihood options for both men and women. Suplido herself said that women also need to earn. Yet a local disaster coordination council member remarked that since there were programs targeting families, then the women would benefit as well.

Unfortunately, unlike in Aceh, Indonesia or in Sri Lanka, which were hit by tsunamis in December 2004, there is hardly any local women’s group in Quezon that could have recommended appropriate programs for them. In Aceh, the Women-Headed Household Empowerment Program or Pekka merely picked up where the tsunami had rudely interrupted its projects, which included gender awareness and skills training.

Gender expert Illo said that in the absence of support for the women here, the greater pressures on them could only contribute to the possibility that they would end up even more socially marginalized. But since she said “it takes longer to kill an adult,” indicators of such marginalization will be seen more easily in children, such as increased infant and child mortality. After all, a mother’s health is critical to newborns, said the United Nations Children’s Fund, citing research that suggests a sound neonatal environment — the mother’s womb — is an important predictor of future child health.

Malnutrition among children is another indicator of the women’s marginalization, although Illo said women themselves are bound to suffer that, too. Such maternal malnutrition in turn can result in shorter lactating periods. There can also be a rise in maternal mortality (the annual number of deaths of women from pregnancy-related causes). Worldwide, at least half a million women die each year from maternal causes arising from lack of supplies and poor access. Here in Quezon, the lack of reproductive-health services has become more pronounced in the wake of a sudden rise of unwanted pregnancies following the 2004 calamity — and increased demands for contraceptives.

Illo said one of the ways the government can avoid such a dire scenario is to develop a prototype disaster management plan that is as inclusive of women’s needs as possible. Women will have to be included in drafting this document, she said, although she stressed that they will have to undergo some training first to ensure their “meaningful participation”. Otherwise, she said, “they will only be asking for sewing machines”.

Illo, though, said women are resilient and persevering. “They fight back,” she said, and “conjure (income opportunities) from thin air”. Carreon, for her part, is banking on the determination shown by the women participants in her group’s cash-for-work program. “I’d like to believe,” she said, “that a certain pattern has been set in motion.”

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