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Feminism, Conflict and Disasters in Post-tsunami Sri Lanka

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How can the destabilising effect of conflict and disaster on gender relations be mitigated? This study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology explores the ways in which the tsunami in Sri Lanka changed people’s relations, for those who lost a spouse. The tsunami not only reorganised gender relations, but also changed the meaning of ‘widow’. War-widows and tsunami-widows are viewed differently within post-tsunami society. It argues that a ‘feminism and development’ approach coupled with a ‘feminism and disaster’ approach to understanding change should be adopted in the wake of the tsunami. Focusing on gender alone is insufficient.

The devastating Indian Ocean basin tsunami of 2004 killed well over 200,000 people and displaced more than a million in Sri Lanka and the Aceh province in Indonesia. However, the tsunami represented one layer of displacement on top of the pre-existing political landscapes of conflict and forced migration.

War destabilises gender and other social relations in ways that are often detrimental to women. Women become more susceptible to sexual assault or prostitution. But war and disasters can also be enabling. Nevertheless, the gender division of labor in Sri Lanka has not changed significantly.

As far as remarriage and domestic roles are concerned, in cases where women and men lost their spouses, the study found that:

  • Women’s workloads in some extended households have increased, although some women widowed by the tsunami have seen their workloads decrease, especially among those who lost children.
  • The men distinguished between ‘war-widows’ and ‘tsunami-widows’, with the latter having less family protection and therefore more proclivity, in their minds, to remarry.
  • Many women would not consider remarriage because it could be detrimental to their children’s welfare. The need for a dowry is a major obstacle that widows face if they want to remarry.
  • For widowers with small children, remarriage is seen as a necessity, as it is believed that a woman is needed to care for children, wash the family’s clothes and cook for the family. Men have not taken on new domestic roles.
  • Men are more likely to marry younger, unmarried women, though several have remarried widows of the tsunami and of war; the demographic implications of this shift in marriage patterns for younger unmarried men remains to be seen.
  • Land titles were in the names of wives and daughters, though none had a new home yet due to the buffer zone policy, which prevents houses being built along the coast.

The categories of ‘widow’ and ‘women’ often change in the context of war and tsunami. Both vary by ethnicity and by the kind of disaster. Academics and development practitioners must focus not only on the differences between women and men after the tsunami, but on the differences within the category ‘woman’ and ‘widow’.

  • The well-intentioned work of development workers and humanitarian actors can unwittingly reproduce and perpetuate existing gender, racial and geographical hierarchies by uncritically promoting certain kinds of projects.
  • A ‘gender analysis’ alone of the disaster is insufficient.
  • The practices of aid, policy and history that position certain groups of people in hierarchical relation to others are not easily unraveled, but this is the work that feminism and development coupled with feminism and disaster can do.


Author: Jennifer Hyndman
Source: Hyndman J., 'Feminism, Conflict and Disasters in Post-tsunami Sri Lanka', Gender, Technology and Development, Vol.12, No. 1, pp. 101–121
Size: 22 pages