(First part of a three-part series)

It has been more than a week since cyclone Nargis pounded the Irrawaddy Delta, leaving hundreds and thousands dead and missing and millions starving. Aid have began to trickle in yet there are remote areas still unreached by the limited relief operations. As the notorious junta refuses to truly cooperate with donors and to facilitate an assessment of the extent of Nargis' impact, speculation over statistics persists. Official death toll stands at 77.738 while those missing number 55,917. But the Red Cross estimates that the dead may reach as high as 127,990 and while affected civilians may number up to 2.51 million.

But out of the understandably conflicting reports and figures and following patterns of the aftermath of the 2004 Asian tsunami, more women and girls may have died while those who survived are bound to endure more suffering, unless responsive and gender-appropriate interventions take place. And with the callous censorship and misplaced priorities of the junta, the Burmese people, particularly women would take a long time to recover from this catastrophe.

In its research in Aceh, the World Health Organisation (WHO) noted that in the four villages in Aceh Basar, there are only 189 women out of the remaining 676 survivors. Of the 366 death toll in North Aceh, 77 percent were women. Similar patterns occurred in India and Sri Lanka. Worse, some Sri Lankan women were raped in exchange for their rescue.

The massive undersea earthquake claimed the lives of nearly 300,000 people living along the coasts of the Indian Ocean, mostly in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. There are no conclusive figures on the casualties but it is commonly held that much more women perished in that natural disaster.

“Women, marginalised and disempowered under normal circumstances, are more at risk because of their socio-economic status, barriers to choice and lack of access to resources,” Cholpon Akmatova of the Asia Pacific Forum on Law and Development said.

While disasters do not choose the people on their paths, their aftermath is experienced differently as people's vulnerabilities vary. Majority of the fatalities were women and girls who were staying at home and were not taught skills like swimming. Meanwhile, those who survived had to face the threats of early forced marriage, rape, and other physical and sexual abuse, including trafficking especially in communities or centres where women are outnumbered by men.

With a proud and paranoid political regime reigning in Burma, many stories and statistics on women are likely to be silenced. It will become difficult to obtain an accurate and sex-disaggregated figure on the casualties and damages brought by Nargis. As a consequence, determining the most appropriate response for the impact of this natural disaster is indeed a challenge.

Sources:

Agence France Presse.(2005, August 3). Raped in exchange for rescue. Retrieved on May 12, 2008, from
http://www.news24.com/News24/World/Tsunami_Disaster/0,,2-10-1777_1673008,00.html

Altsean Burma. (2008, May 9). Disaster” (Briefing Paper). Retrieved on May 12, 2008, from http://www.altsean.org/Reports/Disaster.php

World Health Organization. (n.d.). More than silence: the gender dimensions of tsunami fatalities and their consequence. Retrieved on May 12, 2008, from
http://www.who.int/hac/events/tsunamiconf/presentations/2_3_gender_human_rights_smyth_doc.pdf
on 12 May 2008.

For the figures, Irrawaddy News Magazine, http://www.irrawaddy.org (Last updated on May 19, 2008).

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