Module 2: 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and
resilience of Women
General Impact of 2004 Tsunami
On December 26, 2004, a 9.2 magnitude earthquake occurred off the coast of
Indonesia that triggered a massive Tsunami that impacted 12 Indian Ocean countries,
including Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, and Indonesia. Inderfurth, Fabrycky, and Cohen
(2005) noted that more than 220,000 persons were killed, though other reports show
higher estimates of death. In addition, 1.5 million persons were displaced and forced to
shelter with relatives or reside in camps that were established via relief funds and
actions. Khao Lak, Thailand bore the brunt of the tsunami and was destroyed. As is the
case in many disasters, the poorest of native residents were impacted more than other
populations, and for the purpose of this lesson, many more women were killed than men
as a result of the tsunami. In many villages, the ratio of female to male deaths was 3:1,
and in some villages, only women were killed. This brings into question the
vulnerabilities of women in this particular disaster event.
Vulnerabilities of Women Prior to Tsunami
Cultural Norms. Choo (2005) proposed as well that the vulnerability of women to all
disasters is contingent on the social, cultural, and economic status before a disaster. In
most countries impacted by the 2004 tsunami, traditional cultural norms and gender
roles in societies that were patriarchal contributed to the vulnerability of women and girls
in the tsunami. Women were especially vulnerable economically because they were in
weaker and subordinate positions in terms of income and power.
In many countries impacted by the tsunami, the male in the family was a fisherman and
the breadwinner for the family. Even though his wife was expected to be the nurturer
who took care of the home and children, she may also have engaged in activities to
support her husband, such as being a vender for the sale of fish. In this scenario, it is
easy to see that women and girls would be vulnerable in terms of being dependent on
males for income.
Cultural norms and gender roles contributed in other ways as well to women and girls
being more vulnerable than men and boys prior to the tsunami. For example, most
women and girls did not know how to swim because their role was to be in the home or
at the beach with children (Carballo, et al., 2005; Jimenez-David, 2005). By comparison,
men spent time in the water fishing or away from the water and beach conducting
business (Choo, 2005).
Pregnancy. Lalasz (2005) noted that there were 150,000 pregnant women across
Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and the Maldives at the time of the tsunami, with
50,000 of those women being in the third trimester of pregnancy. Pregnancy in the best
of times can result in prenatal, delivery, and post-natal complications. For example,
even in the absence of a disaster event, a proportion of pregnant women are vulnerable
to the possibility of preterm births or small-for-gestational age births. Each situation
requires special attention in a health care setting.
Tsunami Effects on Women
Choo (2005) contended that women suffer greater consequences of a natural disaster
because they are “less informed, prepared, and protected” than men. In the case of the
2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the effects on women could have been predicted, given
that effects are embedded in pre-existing inequities that are often a function of
traditional cultural norms and gender roles in patriarchal societies (Ruwanpura, 2008).
Those effects included a disproportionate number of female deaths, changes in
reproduction and family relationships, and economic effects.
Social Work Response
In general, Rumanpura (2008) noted that the responses to the 2004 Indian Ocean
tsunami were related to gender structures that existed before the disaster, and as such,
much relief and recovery aid was directed toward men in order to enhance business
endeavors (Choo, 2005). Inderfurth. Fabrycky, and Cohen (2005) highlighted that key
lessons learned from the Indian Ocean tsunami were the need for a global network of
health experts, clear procedures on handling psychological trauma and mass fatalities,
and a focus on the special health issues for women, particularly those related to
gynecological issues. Within this context, Choo (2005) recommended gender-equitable
practice that includes monitoring cultural gender bias and ensuring that financial aid is
distributed fairly after a disaster (Choo, 2005).
In terms of social work response, it goes without saying that all survivors were in
need of psychosocial services following the massive tsunami disaster. However,
Pittaway, Bartolomei, and Rees (2007) highlighted the importance of advocacy on
behalf of women in disaster situations to emphasize their human rights with regard
sexual violence and gender equality. The researchers also suggested specifically that a
gender lens be applied in disaster response, that the expertise in networks of women
affected be acknowledged, and that gender-sensitive codes of conduct be applied,
especially related to sexual violence.
Tang and Cheung (2007) found that social work practice in international relief work
may be more complex and demanding than in typical social work positions. In
order to be competent in this situation, the researchers discussed the need for social
workers to be able to quickly prioritize and coordinate tasks within time constraints,
which might be similar to the ability to triage what needs to be done. This suggests that
schools of social work should emphasize the importance of autonomy in educating and
training social workers to be effective in international relief work.
The purpose of this lesson was to illustrate the vulnerability of women prior to
the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and how this disaster impacted women. As such,
traditional cultural norms and gender roles inherent in countries where patriarchy
was the norm contributed to women’s vulnerability prior to the disaster and its effects on
In terms of relief and recovery, those socio-structural issues were played out in
the disproportionate distribution of financial aid to men compared to women. As
in other disasters, a large number of pregnant women were displaced to camps wherein
they were at risk of sexual assault and rape with little attention to reproductive
issues. In terms social work response, advocacy for human rights on behalf of
women in post disaster situations was strongly recommended, as well as the
need for social workers engaging in international relief work to be competent in
prioritizing and coordinating tasks within the context of time constraints.
consider view the movie entitled The Impossible.
Carballo, M., & Simic, S. (1996). Health in countries torn by conflict: lessons from
Sarajevo. Lancet, 348, 872-875.
Carballo, M., Hernandez, M., Schneider, K., & Welle, E. (2005). Impac of the tsunami on
reproductive health. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 98, 400-403.
Casey, M. (March 26, 2005). Aid agency: Women suffering disproportionately from effects of
tsunami. Associated Press.
Castro Garcia, C. (2005). Gender inequality in the Center Comprehensible Disaster Management:
An introduction. Revista de la nversidad Cristobal Colon, 20, 111.
Choo, P. (2005). Women in the December 26 Tsunami: How have they coped; How can we
help? World Fish Center Newsletter, 28(1 & 2), 13-16.
Jimeniz-David, R. (2005). Faces of women in the tsunami: Mabuhay! Opinion in Columns.
Inderfuth, K., Fabrycky, D., & Cohen, S. (2005). The tsunami report card. Foreign Policy
Pittiway, E., Bartolomei, L., & Rees, S. (2007). Gendered dimensions of the 2004 tsunami and a
potential social work response in post-disaster situations. International Social Work,
Ruwanpura, K. (2008). Temporality of disasters: The politics of women’s livelihood ‘after’ the 2004
tsunami in Sri Lanka. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 29(3), 325-340.
Tang, K, & Cheung, C. (2007). The competence of Hong Kong social work students in working
with victims of the 2004 tsunami disaster. International Social Work, 50(3), 405-418.
Module 2: Women’s Resilience and Disaster
Discuss why women’s resilience should be assessed in preparing for disaster.
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