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10 years on: Women fight for rights and equality after devastating tsunami

The natural disaster – one of the worst in history – claimed the lives of 230,000 people.

Image: AP/Press Association Images

ON THIS DAY 10 years ago, we gathered around television screens in stunned silence as we watched footage from south Asia.

The Indian Ocean earthquake resulted in a devastating tsunami which claimed the lives of more than 230,000 people.

It destroyed whole towns, villages and communities, displacing 2.1 million. The 100-metre-high waves hit Sri Lanka, India and Thailand the hardest, levelling everything in their path. However no country around the Indian Ocean escaped completely.

A decade later, families are still trying to rebuild their lives. Grieving for loved ones lost, they have also had to fight other battles.

ActionAid Ireland said that after the initial recovery period, they focused their attentions on women and girls because they are “more vulnerable”.

Three quarters of those who died were women and girls.

“In an emergency, women and girls tend to miss out on relief distributions, and are more susceptible to violence and discrimination but are generally the first to respond,” according to the charity.

Since 2004, women have made enormous progress in the region in their struggle for equality. In a warped way, they say the achievements came as an indirect result of the disaster.

“With the new-found confidence and respect these women have gained as leaders of the relief and recover efforts, they have gone on to campaign for and win significant women’s rights battles.”

The charity continues to work with women, many of whom are now fisherwomen.

What now?

Ambedkar Nagar is a coastal village with 44 Arunthatiyar community (Dalit caste) families. Their main occupation had been as coastal workers so when the tsunami struck, their lives changed overnight.

The community had been living for many generations on land belonging to the railways but they were forced to evacuate.

It became an excuse for the authorities to permanently evict them from the land, forcing them away from their homes and livelihoods. The community was forcefully evacuated to a Tsunami shelter, which lacked any facilities and did not give them a chance to continue with their livelihoods. Their original homes were bulldozed to the ground.

ActionAid’s partner IRWO mobilised the women and men in the community to fight for their rights with the state government authorities. They were eventually successful in getting their own land near the coast, close to their original homes. Now they are no longer illegals, but owners of the land for the first time in generations.

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Pictured is Swarnalakshmi (15) the 1st child in Ambedkar Nagar to complete class 10, her dream is to become a lawyer and fight for Dalit rights.

T. Valli  is a 48-year-old mother of three. 

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Her family had been living in the coastal village of Karaikal Medu for more than 25 years without Patta (land deeds). Most of the fishing families in the area were in the same situation. On the day of the tsunami, 715 fishing families were affected and 56 lives lost. Most of the deaths were women and children.

After the tsunami, government authorities tried to force the families to move on but they refused.

Another agency, SNEHA, came to know about the case and they told the communities about their rights. Finally, the government agreed and offered the necessary land deeds.

The fisherwomen of Karikal Medu then formed a women’s collective and decided to fight for the another purpose – the right to jointly own the land alongside their husbands. They fought to ensure that the land deeds given were in the names of both the husband and the wife to ensure their security.

Most of the stories you will read this week will see people looking positive and hopeful.

“Our feelings are not like 10 years ago when I would feel sad if I talked about my tsunami experience,” one survivor told Reuters last Friday.

“Now we are focused on improving our business and helping other families in our community.

“There are still many who live below the poverty line so we want to help them earn a decent income and livelihood.”

Originally published at 6.15am

Related: 14-year-old girl reunited with her family after being swept away by tsunami 10 years ago 

Column: Women, the elderly, and the disabled are disproportionately hit by natural disasters

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