Sunday, April 03, 2005

ECHIDNE OF THE SNAKES writes about the disproportionate effect of December's tsunamis on women. Oxfam International has published the results of a study showing that most of the deaths as a result of the tsunamis were women. In some refugee camps, men outnumber women by 10 to 1.

There are a number of reasons for this. The most obvious one is the fact that women are usually not as physically strong as men, and thus would find it harder to outrun the monstrous waves, or escape the waves in ways such as climbing trees. But gender roles and cultural norms also played a significant part:

  • Women were more likely to be at home caring for children when the tsunamis hit, and often perished because they stayed behind to save their children or other family members. Women's lesser physical strength plays in here, too: carrying a child or several children to safety would be much harder for a woman than a man.
  • Most women in places like Sri Lanka and Indonesia cannot swim, because swimming is considered immodest for women. Men often escaped the raging water by climbing trees; women were much less likely to do this, because it would be considered immodest.
  • Although women in the larger cities often wear western dress, women in rural areas and small villages still are expected to wear saris, again because they are considered more modest. Saris are long pieces of cloth wrapped around the body. It's easy to see how such clothing would facilitate drowning.
  • Women's long hair got tangled in trees and debris. Long hair for women is also a cultural expectation in this region.

The impact of so many more women than men being killed by the tsunamis has been enormous, and will continue to be for a long time. Sexual abuse and harassment, up to and including rape, is a huge problem in the refugee camps. Many women have been forced into marriages, often to much older men, because there are so few women left relative to the number of men. And children who survived but lost their mother are left to be raised by their fathers, who traditionally take very little part in raising their children.

Echidne wrote this piece after reading a post on the same subject by Linnet.

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