The impact on women

Down to Earth No 64  March 2005

Far more women, children and the elderly died in the quake-tsunami than teenagers and men. In Lambada village, there were only 105 survivors from a population of over 2,100; of these only 5 were women. This is not atypical. The overall gender balance in Aceh may have been changed by 20% or more.

The reasons why so many women died may never be known. Many stayed to save their children when the first tsunami struck. Others could not run fast enough to higher ground while carrying babies and toddlers. Some were not physically strong enough to withstand the battering from the debris-laden waves.

Those women and young girls who did survive are in a vulnerable position in a society where men have traditionally been regarded as the head of the household and main wage earner. Aid workers talk off the record about incidents of violence, intimidation and sexual harassment in camps, but cannot report these to the authorities where the perpetrators are the military. There are now serious concerns about conditions in the new relocation centres which are guarded by security patrols.

Teenage girls are particularly at risk. Many of the larger aid agencies, such as UNICEF, only provide support for children up to the age of sixteen. Older girls who have lost one or both parents have little chance of continuing at school or getting skills training. Trafficking of young women to Java, Malaysia or the Middle East for the sex trade or as domestic servants was recognised as a problem in Aceh before the disaster. Sale into early marriage is another risk, given the high proportion of single and widowed men. There are fears that unscrupulous procurement agents may be preying on girls still traumatised by the disaster who have no-one to protect them.

Pregnant women have special needs which are easily overlooked in standard provisions for refugees. National and international aid providers are striving to assess these needs in displaced populations and supply expectant mothers with the clothes, vitamins, medical care and sanitary facilities they require.

Gender issues are firmly on the disaster management agenda, with OXFAM and UNICEF taking the lead. UN guidelines for protection of women and children have been circulated, in Bahasa Indonesia, to all the civil and military authorities operating in Aceh and a code of conduct is in preparation.

Women's organisations in Aceh, such as Flower Aceh, RPuK (Relawan Perempuan untuk Kemanusiaan, Women Volunteers for Humanity), LBH-Apik, (Legal Aid Organisation- Association of Indonesian Women for Justice) and Abiyuka, have been hard hit. They had little freedom to operate during the years of military and civil emergency and now their staff and local project co-ordinators have been depleted by the disaster. The offices of Flower Aceh in Banda Aceh and LBH-Apik in Lhokseumawe were destroyed. Most have suspended their programmes to work with international agencies on providing humanitarian assistance, needs assessment and trauma counselling among women and children in the smaller camps and lodgings.

Women's NGOs in Aceh, supported by national organisations such as Solidaritas Perempuan, are also trying to ensure that women are fully consulted in plans that affect their future, including resettlement and reconstruction. They lobbied the minister for women's empowerment Meuthia Hatta during her official visit to Banda Aceh in January, calling for more attention to be paid to the rights and needs of women survivors.