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Waves of Violence -
Women in Post-Tsunami Sri Lanka

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2005-2

Waves of Violence - Women in Post-Tsunami Sri Lanka

Susan Rees, PhD, Senior Lecturer, School of Social Work and Community Welfare, James Cook University, Townsville, Australia 4811. Email: Susan.Rees@jcu.edu.au
Eileen Pittaway, PhD, Director, Centre for Refugee Research, School of Social Work, University of New South Wales
Linda Bartolomei, Research Associate, School of Social Work, University of New South Wales

Keywords: Gender, Violence, Tsunami, Sri Lanka, Disaster, Women

Dr Susan Rees

School of Social Work and Community Welfare
James Cook University

Dr Eileen Pittaway

Centre for Refugee Research
School of Social Work
University of New South Wales

Linda Bartolomei

School of Social Work,
University of New South Wales


Natural disasters do not exist in isolation from the social and cultural constructs that marginalize women and place them at risk of violence. In fact, there is evidence that violence against women increases in the wake of colossal disasters and that the increased risk is associated with gender inequality and the limited representation of women in disaster responses (Enarson,2000; OXFAM, 2005). This paper describes a community based and developed program intended to support women and to reduce the incidence of sexual and gender based violence in post-tsunami Sri Lanka. Preliminary data from the project is used to highlight some of the needs of women, as well as the challenges in addressing gender-based violence and marginalisation. Strengthening communities, and renewing social support networks for women in a post-disaster context is reliant on programs such as this to bring women together, identify needs and response strategies, formally document violations, and to centralise the social and political involvement of women in addressing abuse and inequality immediately and in the long term.

Waves of Violence - Women in Post-Tsunami Sri Lanka


“ On the 3rd day after the Tsunami a woman came to me. She told me that two men had pulled her from the waves and had asked her “What would you prefer to die in the waves or be raped and survive?” She decided that because of her children that survival was more important, so the men raped her. She is now terrified that her husband will find out.” (‘Woman to Woman,’ Story 5, Colombo Training. 14.01.05)

Reports are that women and children were the worst affected by the force of the December 2004 tsunami (Oxfam, 2005). Children were disproportionably affected because they are small and are often dependent on adults, and many women died trying to care for their children and other family members. In Sri Lanka, the second wave of brutality affecting women is not from a natural source; it is caused from an increase in incidents of rape and domestic violence. Compounding the effects of violence is the lack of food and clean water, housing, and health care specific to the needs of women, many of whom are pregnant, lactating and caring for infants. (See footnote 1)

In August 2004, UNHCR launched a report entitled Sexual and Gender Based Violence in Selected Locations in Sri Lanka. The study was conducted in 12 sites across Sri Lanka and identified a high incidence of Sexual and Gender Based Violence, particularly domestic violence, of which 80% is unreported to authorities. The destruction of infrastructure and the lack of effective mechanisms for monitoring and protection in the post-tsunami context would almost certainly increase the vulnerability of women to Sexual and Gender Based Violence. Incidents of rape, gang rape, molestation and physical abuse of women and girls in the course of unsupervised rescue operations and while in temporary shelters have been reported (Pikul, 2005). Unfortunately, these reports are consistent with literature linking disaster with increased incidence of Sexual and Gender Based Violence (Enarson, 2000, 1998).

A number of women’s groups in Sri Lanka undertook fact-finding missions within the days following the Tsunami. The groups reported a culture of denial among some camp committees, medical staff, police and religious leaders. They cited comments about domestic violence, which ranged from “this is normal” to outright denial that any sexual violence against women was occurring. In cases where rape and sexual violence was acknowledged it tended to be blamed on outsiders, often on drug addicts and criminals.

"Woman to Woman" Program

When volunteer workers from other areas arrived they told us how people in other regions had been affected. People who went to rescue women had sexually assaulted them and stolen their jewellery. I have also heard of incidents of child abuse. After I heard these stories I decided that there are no human feelings on this earth. Before this incident I had a general idea of sexual and gender based violence but now my hatred of the male gender is boundless.”(Woman to Woman, Story 1, Tamil training)

In January 2005 the newly formed Sri Lankan women’s Coalition for Assisting Tsunami Affected Women (CATAW) and the UNFPA requested training for women community workers to support their work towards immediate and long-term responses for women and children. Working on behalf of UNFPA, part funded by AUSTCARE, and in collaboration with women’s groups in Sri Lanka, Eileen Pittaway and Linda Bartolomei from the University of New South Wales (and co-authors of this paper) developed the initial program and have been delivering the initial training.


The program structure reflects a belief in the existing capacity and skill of women to develop responses to disasters, to mobilise organisations and to protect families and communities. The program is participatory-based, and emphasises the therapeutic method of sharing stories within a social and political context (see Herman, 1998), identifying women’s needs, documenting violations and strategising for change.

The training predominantly used a storyboard methodology (See footnote 2)  where participants identify and discuss key issues concerning the experiences of women in the post tsunami context in small groups. Groups use text, pictures and sketches on large sheets of paper to express, explore and examine identified themes and issues. Each group brings their storyboard and their interpretation of the storyboard back to share with the larger group. Explanations of each storyboard are documented and each storyboard and the documented accounts become data that is collated by facilitators and shared with participants.

The initial training was undertaken in Colombo and a regional location. The first group held in Colombo was translated simultaneously in Sinhalese and Tamil with 46 women participants. The second group was held in Colombo in Sinhalese with 26 women participants and the other regional group was in Tamil with 16 women participants. Participants in the training were community workers who in turn prepared to use the same training strategy with other women in their respective communities.
The training process and application of the storyboard methodology generated qualitative data that was subsequently used as evidence by local women at the Sri Lankan and United Nations levels to lobby for a gendered response to the tsunami disaster. Participants agreed that Sexual and Gender Based Violence is one of the major challenges confronting their recovery from the devastating effects of the tsunami.

“ One of the hardest things for us to understand is that in the face of such disaster, our Sri Lankan men will do this – it is breaking our hearts” (‘Woman to Woman,’ Local Relief worker, Tamil Training)

An important issue in the training was to assure women that this was not just a “Sri Lankan” problem, but is a universal phenomenon in disaster situations. Women discussed the fundamental problem of denial connected with Sexual and Gender Based Violence, and the reluctance of some medical practitioners and other people in positions of authority to either acknowledge or report that this was happening. “The International spotlight is on Sri Lanka – people are pouring in aid. They do not need to see this disgraceful behaviour” (A comment from a Sri Lankan Doctor, reported by a woman relief worker in Galle).

Colossal disasters have been considered great levellers (Enarson,1998; Fordham, 1999), however Sri Lankan women are experiencing the converse. Women in Sri Lanka are living with the fear and reality of Sexual and Gender Based Violence, as well as having to confront daily survival challenges. Unfortunately, environmental disasters such as the tsunami affect people disproportionately. The needs of those in minority groups, including women, the poor, people with disabilities, and cultural and ethnic minorities are more at risk as the dominant groups benefit from their existing power status, and in particular their privileged access to essential resources, services and supports. Enarson’s (1998) comment that pets, tourists, and cultural artefacts receive more attention than battered women in the disaster literature is confirmed by our reading of the existing literature and our observations on the ground in Sri Lanka.

The program “Woman to Woman” was designed to support the existing efforts of women’s organisations working to protect women from violence, to identify needs and where disaster responses should focus to protect women, to engender support for strategies to ensure women’s involvement in decision making, and more broadly to secure equality and rights for women now and into the future. Preliminary data from the training project is described below to highlight some of the needs of women, as well as the challenges they encounter in addressing gender-based violence and marginalisation.

Sexual and Gender Based Violence.

“ There was a 13 year old girl who was gang raped but the police keep saying there are no complaints.” (‘Woman to Woman,’ Story 5 Colombo training).

Sexual and Gender Based Violence is a major cause of injury and disease world-wide (Krug et al, 2002) and frequently erodes self-esteem and reduces a woman’s capacity to care for herself and others. Perpetrators of violence are assisted by institutional settings that work to their advantage (Olsen & Scharffscher, 2004). In the case of post-tsunami Sri Lanka, traumatised women living in insecure and less protected environments, such as camps established for temporary housing, are easy targets. Participants in the program described unreported acts of violence against women, a high incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, authorities ignoring abuse, and non-existent physical or emotional support structures for women who have been sexually or physically abused. Participants also identified that the loss of homes, livelihood, community and family protection had increased their vulnerability to Sexual and Gender Based Violence.

“ Women are destitute, they don’t even have 10 rupees. First they need counselling and then we need to talk with them about livelihood.” (‘Woman to Woman,’ Story 1, Sinhalese training,)

A number of participants shared their concerns that poverty has made women vulnerable to traffickers and forced sexual relations in order to feed themselves and their families. One of the training participants shared her experience of being approached by a man she believed was engaged in the trafficking of women for prostitution.

“A man came and talked to me, he said “ Find me adult women to take care of .. look for middle aged and beautiful women.” He said he wanted them to work as maids but we fear that it was for prostitution.” (‘Woman to Woman,’ Story 5, Colombo Training).

Privacy and Lack of Services in Camps

“There is no privacy for women in toilets. There is no security, men can come anytime” (‘Woman to Woman,’ Story 1, Sinhalese training,)

In a culture where the modesty of women is highly valued, a lack of privacy and the related exposure is highly problematic for women’s safety and security. Furthermore, the risk for women is compounded by the fact that they are commonly held responsible for violations of their modesty. Participants identified a lack of privacy experienced by women and young girls in camps that were established to shelter people following the mass destruction of housing. Girls reaching puberty were particularly sensitive to the lack of privacy. Participants noted that many women were harassed by men in the camp as a result of not having their own private and safe space. Changing clothes in the view of men was a humiliating and dangerous reality. Women lived in fear of molestation and abuse. Female hygiene products such as sanitary towels were publicly distributed, resulting in an embarrassing experience for women who had to request them from male officials. Inadequate infrastructure, including deficient lighting in camps, has facilitated the rape of women. Participants noted that the places of potential danger for women were the river; toilet blocks (including where there are no separate toilets for women and men); the forced use of public bathing facilities; queuing for medical services; temples and at home. Fear of abuse was from both strangers and husbands alike.

“Because of the tsunami there are cases of sexual abuse and harassment of women and children. I have worked among the women and children doing relief work, we give them ¼ bottle of kerosene and hurricane lamps for the tents. There is a constant anxiety as to when they will get more, so they only use the kerosene at eating time, the rest of the time they are in darkness, this is a big risk for women and girls.”(‘Woman to Woman,’ Story 3, Tamil training.)

Lack of Appropriate Health and Medical Services

Medical services were not adequately meeting the needs of women who had experienced Sexual and Gender Based Violence. Participants noted that when medical services were available there was no opportunity for women to speak privately with medical practitioners, and there was a general lack of trust associated with consulting them. Similar to refugee women who have experienced Sexual and Gender Based Violence as a form of persecution or during flight, tsunami affected women also have particular gendered health needs related to sexual assault, rape, unwanted pregnancies, physical assaults and related psychological traumas. Health services, comprising female doctors aware of the experiences and needs of women in disaster situations, are urgently required.

Male Dominance in Camps

As social constructs, camps had become sites of power and control. Men exerted their physical strength in order to force issues, and there was a noted absence of opportunities for women to voice their opinions and concerns. There was no possibility for women to take part in decision-making that could assist with identifying or addressing problems that placed them at increased risk of violence and disease. Women were fearful of the reactions of men if they did attempt to speak out, and the high incidence of sexual abuse and intimidation of women reinforced that fear.

The subordinate status of women in camps has placed them at increased risk of violence and trauma. The camp as a microcosm of dysfunctional gender relations in Sri Lanka underscores the importance of repositioning women centrally in disaster situations and with equal status and power within the broader society. Pragmatically, the wellbeing of women extends beyond the half population they represent because they are also most often responsible for the care of children and older people. From a human rights perspective, women have the same rights to ‘life, liberty and person’ as men, including protection from discrimination. Rape and domestic violence are human rights violations.

Repositioning Women as Central in Disaster Responses and Development

In the provision of psycho social support for survivors of the tsunami, there is a push to “normalise” rather than “pathologise’ the responses of the people. Caution should be taken not to normalise the causes or effects of violence perpetrated against women. Normalisation could inadvertently endorse the existing denial and cultural normalisation of domestic violence, and in so doing jeopardise efforts to protect women from Sexual and Gender Based Violence and hinder their recovery from tsunami-related trauma. Women’s organisations articulate the importance of acknowledging the marginalised position of women in Sri Lanka, and the relationship between inequality and the very high incidence of domestic and family violence. Clearly, responses to assist women post tsunami need to be developed to support existing efforts by local women who understand the history, social, cultural and contemporary dynamics and the inextricable relationship between those factors and tsunami-related devastation and related increase in Sexual and Gender Based Violence.

We argue that natural disasters do not exist in isolation from the social and cultural constructs that already marginalize women and place them at risk of violence. Natural disasters need to be seen as social processes, triggered by ecological events, but rooted in social relations and history, where gender inequality determines the degree of risk (Enarson, 2000). The ‘Woman to Woman’ program has been introduced to promote women’s and girl’s rights, using a holistic approach for preventing Sexual and Gender Based Violence post tsunami and including a long-term vision for change. By comprehensively identifying issues and needs for disaster-affected women the groundwork is developed for the involvement of women to address those needs. The process of sharing disaster and recovery stories with an emphasis on empowerment and human rights, including understanding the gender bias in disaster systems, assists women to mobilise and be ready to engage at both the institutional and community levels.

Data gathered to date from the programs illustrates the dire need for security and safety for women in Sri Lanka, many of whom are living in camps where risks are related to inadequate infrastructure and services, as well as the impact of the changed environment on cultural and gender based norms.

In Sri Lanka, a pre-existing pervasive culture of acceptance (or denial) concerning violence against women, including no existing criminal legislation on domestic violence (Bourke-Martignoni, 2002), presents compounded problems for organisations attempting to support women in the wake of the tsunami. The denial or trivialising of violence against women by authorities only adds to the problem. The prominent finding of male dominance and its negative implications is one that underscores the importance of the longer-term vision for structural change to address gender inequality in Sri Lanka. In responding to disaster, interventions need to be developed around the existing skills and knowledge of women, who are the time-honoured custodians of community knowledge, social networks and community development. The capacity of women to mobilise people and manage change should not be underestimated. Rather than feeling that their voices can not be safely heard, opportunities for women to engage in management and decision making related to all levels of crisis response and reconstruction should be offered.


Australian Federated Press (2005) Sri Lanka Tsunami Survivors Protest Corrupt Aid Distribution. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au

Bourke-Martignoni, J. (November, 2002) Violence Against Women in Sri Lanka: Report for the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, Geneva: World Organisation Against Torutre (OMCT).

CATAW - Coalition of Tsunami Affected Women, Sri Lanka. Meeting notes, 7.1.05.

Enarson, E. (January, 1998) Surviving Domestic Violence and Disasters, The FREDA Centre for Research on Violence Against Women and Children. Retrieved from http://www.harbour.sfu.ca/freda/reports/dviol.htm

Enarson, E. (May 3-5, 2000) Gender Issues in Natural Dissasters: Talking Points and Research Needs, ILO In Focus Programme on Crisis Response and Reconstruction Workshop, Geneva.

Fordham, M. (1999) The Intersection of Gender and Social Class in Disaster: Balancing Resilience and Vulnerability. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 17(1), 15-36.

Herman, J. (1998) Trauma and Recovery. London: Pandora.

Krug G, Dahlberg L, Mercy J, Zwi A and Lozano R (eds) (2002) World Report on Violence and Health World Health Organisation, Geneva

Olsen, O & Scharffscher, K. (Winter, 2004) Rape in Refugee Camps as Organisation Failures, International Journal of Human Rights, 8(4), 377-397.

Oxfam (2005) The tsunami's impact on women. Available: http://www.oxfam.org.uk/what_we_do/issues/conflict_disasters/downloads/bn_tsunami_women.pdf. Accessed 3 May 2005.

Pikul, C. (January, 2005) As Tsunami Receeds, Women’s Risks Appear, Global Action on Aging. Retrieved from http://www.globalaging.org/elderrights/world/2004/tsunami.htm

‘Woman to Woman,’ program, data from participants (Sinhalese), collected 14.01.05

‘Woman to Woman,’ program, data from participants (Tamil), collected 16.01.05

‘Woman to Woman,’ program, data from participants (Colombo), collected 14.1.05

Footnote: 1 A recent report acknowledges that up to 70% of affected people in Sri Lanka are yet to have received any emergency support (AFP, 2005).

Footnote: 2 See Centre for Refugee Research Website


Susan Rees, Eileen Pittaway & Linda Bartolomei © 2005. The authors assign to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.

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