UN calls for empowering women to address tsunami’s gender-specific needs

14 January 2005 –

The Indian Ocean tsunami may have made no distinction between men and women in the grim death toll it reaped with its waves but it has produced some very gender-specific after-shocks, ranging from women’s traditional role in caring for the sick to increased cases of rape and abuse, a United Nations agency reported today.

“Understanding and measuring these differences is essential for an effective response,” the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in a news release, stressing the need to raise awareness on gender issues among decision- and policy-makers to ensure that women’s and men’s different needs are reflected in policies, practices and resource through the phases of relief, rehabilitation and development.

Differentiating between the survivors by age and sex will facilitate a sustainable response, it added, calling for the empowerment of women by recruiting them for assessments and ensuring their full representation in community groups and meetings to ensure that they play a full role in decision-making about relief.

The burden on women may have increased due to the high number of people injured or who become ill as epidemics develop, FAO said, noting that due to the household division of labour, women traditionally take care of the sick. They also have the responsibility to fetch water and may now need to increase the amount of time dedicated to collecting both drinking water and freshwater for agriculture crops.

“Fear of sexual violence has been reported to limit women’s and girls’ mobility, for example in search of new economic opportunities,” the agency added, noting the increased cases of rape and abuse against women and children being reported in Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

“Likewise, this fear is behind their reluctance to moving into camps where they could have access to food. Women and children are often the most vulnerable because of their lower socio-economic standing, in terms of limited access to necessary resources. They lack influence due to inequality and disempowerment, and have often less decision-making power and control over their lives,” it said.

Looking at longer-term needs, FAO called for the provision of credit and financial assets to both men and women according to their livelihoods needs.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) is also redoubling its efforts to meet the health and psycho-social needs of women and youth and this week received specific contributions of $5.5 million from the Government of Japan and $1 million from the Government of the Netherlands.

“These generous amounts will go a long way in ensuring that the needs of women and youth – often ignored in the aftermath of natural disasters – are properly addressed,” UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid said.

More than 150,000 women are currently pregnant in the affected areas, of whom 50,000 are due to give birth during the next three months, the agency noted. Their chances of delivering in safe and clean conditions have been jeopardized by the damage to health facilities and loss of basic delivery care supplies and UNFPA has appealed for $28 million to adequately help women and youth in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, the three hardest hit countries.

As part of this effort UNFPA has sent 18 tons of supplies for maternity care to Indonesia’s Aceh Province, the worst-hit of all the devastated regions, ranging from simple supplies for safe and sanitary home deliveries to hospital equipment needed to re-establish emergency obstetric care for those experiencing life-threatening complications during childbirth.

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