Press Release

Asian Tsunami: UNIFEM Calls for Greater Role of Women in Recovery and Reconstruction Efforts

For immediate release
Date: 23 June 2005

Media Inquiries:
Oisika Chakrabarti, Media Specialist, UN Women Headquarters, +1 646 781-4522,

United Nations — Women survivors of the tsunami that struck in December 2004 are demanding a greater role in the recovery and reconstruction efforts underway in the affected countries. For years at the forefront of survival strategies that sustained their families and communities during conflict, women assumed critical roles in the tsunami emergency response effort, taking in relatives and children orphaned by the tsunami, offering care and support within camps and shelters for grieving survivors, and participating in aid and health care distribution and evacuation of the dead. As tsunami-affected communities transition from the emergency to the reconstruction phase, however, women's participation is lacking in the planning and implementation of recovery and rebuilding processes.

In two of the severely affected areas, Aceh, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, UNIFEM and its local partners have been working to mobilize women's networks to identify the needs and concerns of women survivors and ensure that a gender perspective is incorporated in reconstruction processes.

Two major women's meetings, one in Aceh and the other in Colombo, Sri Lanka, have taken place in the last two months, gathering hundreds of women to discuss their concerns and articulate their role in the recovery and rebuilding phase. The meetings follow on visits by Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), to Aceh and Sri Lanka to hold consultations with various women's groups at the grassroots level in preparation for the meetings.

"Women must be at the heart of the recovery process. For decades, they have been the lifeline of their communities, leading survival systems and mutual-aid networks, including among the internally displaced and refugee communities. Women are not just victims, they are survivors, and they need to be part of the solution," she said. "The reweaving of the social fabric of life is the foundation for reconstruction and a necessary part of the healing process. It is women, in their families and their communities, who are playing this role."

According to Heyzer, women on the ground identified four critical issues: the urgent need to re-establish livelihoods; the issue of land titles and ownership, including inheritance rights, particularly in the case of children who lost their entire family; the creation of adequate settlements and housing, and the lack of gender sensitivity in the planning and management of temporary barracks; and the need for more opportunities for women to interact with local and national authorities and participate in decision-making to engage with the reconstruction process.

Recommendations put forward at the meetings are being submitted at the highest policy levels with the support of UNIFEM and other partners. At the same time, women's groups are being supported to undertake advocacy activities, to ensure that their voices are heard at local and national decision-making levels, especially in critical policy decisions affecting livelihoods, land rights, shelter and recovery.

Sri Lankan women stressed the need to address access to recovery programmes — in many instances, although they received relief supplies in the form of goods, they were not able to get access to recovery grants since these were only provided to men as heads of households. Without cash to start over, it would be difficult for them to rebuild their livelihoods. Many also complained of a lack of access to information, and the threat of losing land or property rights given the loss of deeds and personal documents during the tsunami. In the eastern part of Sri Lanka, women are particularly concerned that customary laws that give women equal rights to land and inheritance may be lost in the new legal regime being designed.

In Aceh, women put at the top of their list of recommendations the re-establishing of Balai Inong, or "women's house." Before the tsunami, every village in Aceh had a Balai Inong where women could meet to network, convene and work together on projects. According to the women, starting up these women's houses in villages again would be an effective way to ensure that women's concerns were being heard, while also providing a safe space for women to grieve, share experiences, and develop skills to sustain their livelihoods.

Based on the priorities and concerns identified by women, UNIFEM is concentrating its efforts in the tsunami-affected areas on leadership, livelihoods and protection. Activities include identifying the specific needs of women, and female-headed households in particular, and advocating for an adequate response to these within the reconstruction process; supporting women's organizations in their efforts to engage in the reconstruction process, and building the capacity of partners to include a gender perspective in programme design and implementation by national authorities, the UN system, international NGOs and multilateral and bilateral organizations.

Noeleen Heyzer visiting women survivors of the tsunami in Sri Lanka, who are rebuilding their livelihoods by starting small businesses with UNIFEM support.
Noeleen Heyzer visiting women survivors of the tsunami in Sri Lanka, who are rebuilding their livelihoods by starting small businesses with UNIFEM support.