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Stagnant lives of the Meeriyabadda landslide victims Women and children most vulnerable

11 January 2016 06:39 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Victims of any natural disaster  are in a state of shock, panic, stressed out and helpless. They live with trauma.  Women  and children are often vulnerable in this context and face many discomforts, especially those relating to sanitary facilities and living conditions. In an attempt to find out what life is like in the aftermath of a natural disaster,  the Daily Mirror spoke to victims of the Meeriyabadda landslide.

“We live in a world where humanitarian crises extract mounting costs from economies, communities and individuals. Wars and natural disasters make the headlines, at least initially. Less visible but also costly are the crises of fragility, vulnerability and growing inequality, confining millions of people to the most tenuous hopes for peace and development” – Shelter from the Storm
‘Shelter from the Storm’  - A transformative agenda for women and girls in a crisis-prone world  -  a report that was recently released by the UNFPA state of world population 2015 throws light upon the many millions of victims who have faced crises across the world and how they have been affected directly and indirectly. It reveals that more than 100 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, 29 million of them being women and adolescent girls of reproductive age.
According to the report, while the number of natural disasters  tripled during the past 20 years, for each person who dies in a disaster, there are a hundred more  affected by it. Although only 44% of the disasters have taken place in developing countries, 68% of deaths have occurred there. Those who undergo such adversities are left homeless, separated from families, orphaned, diseased and have limited opportunities of living their usual lives again.
It is certainly true that women and children are the most vulnerable. As Shelter from the Storm demonstrates, while men are much more likely to be directly affected, women die or are otherwise harmed more often of indirect causes. Females have a higher tendency to be internally displaced persons and refugees, and are often subjected to gender-based violence.


The grievances of the Meeriyabadda landslide victims

This is no different in Sri Lanka which is prone to both natural and man-made disasters. Sri Lankans are still recovering from the gruesome memories of the thirty-year ethnic conflict. Many of its victims are still displaced and are waiting to start their lives afresh.
When the Daily Mirror visited the abandoned tea factory in Meeriyabadda, which currently houses the victims of last year’s disaster, their  situation was quite pathetic. Out of  310 inhabitants belonging to 88 families, the Daily Mirror spoke to a few women giving them an opportunity to tell the world what their life was like.  
Wijekumar Chandra, a 29-year-old woman, was eager to speak about her difficulties, with her two children by her side.
“They promised to give us houses in 3 months. It has been more than a year now, but we are still stuck here. My husband was a goldsmith, and I used to work at an apparel industry in Colombo. My mother and elder sister used to look after our children when we were working. We lost them both in the landslide. Now I work as a domestic and keep my younger son with me. My husband is farming now. He is not used to it, but since we lost all utensils, we have no other option.”


Their careers have been put on hold, along with  their former lifestyles

While some are under the impression that they can move into their new houses by January next year to celebrate Thai Pongal, some hang on to  the fading promise that at least the Sinhala and Tamil New Year can be celebrated in their own homes.  R. Indrani, carrying  her child in her arms, spoke of the never ending hope of re-settlement.

“We have many problems while living here. We receive a voucher of Rs. 1500 per week. That is not at all sufficient to feed a family of four. They could have given us a house  at least within 6 months, when it wasn’t raining. But they didn’t start construction  back then. We all joined a campaign asking for the replacements last month. Although work was restarted after the clamour, they cannot continue properly because of the rain. At election times of course we were given many words of assurance.” The extents of their hardships were  reflected in these heart-rending stories. Wijelechchami was trying to put her granddaughter Thilakshani to sleep in a makeshift cradle as we approached her. The little baby’s mother has gone abroad to make money. The father of the child, she says, died before the baby was born.
“What we want is a house of our own. These children often get sick here, because of the lack of hygiene, bad water and the cold weather. When it rains, the room is flooded with water because the roof is cracked. Only God knows the hardships we go through. My daughter never wanted to leave her children behind, but she has to fly overseas because we need the money to survive.”

Shanthi Malar, a 24-year-old maiden, lives with her elder brother’s family, packed in one room. She was cooking her afternoon meal in the middle of the room as we spoke to her. When questioned about the sanitary health problems that women like herself are confronted with, this is what she had to say:
“Old and young women, and little children, all use the same toilets built a few metres away. They are not clean at all. We don’t have a means of discarding sanitary napkins. Some dump them in the toilets, which sometimes spark rows among the women here. Thankfully no one has got pregnant yet, or else it would be a disaster to take care of a new born kid here. It is difficult for us women to change clothes as we all live together. Privacy is a luxury we can’t afford.”
Marimuththu Raja was looking after his three children, aged 2, 7, and 9, playing on the floor inside their room. He said that they are vulnerable to many diseases. “My children survive according to the medicines given. There is a doctor who visits us on a regular basis, but that doesn’t stop the children from getting caught to all the contagious diseases that spread across the camp. We try to take care of each and every one living here and attend to women’s special needs, but there is so much to do. I also believe that having our own place will solve the existing problems to a great extent.” Kandaiah Mariya, Kanagalechchami and Kalaimagar were three more women who were facing trouble due to these inconveniences. They shared the following with us;

“There are 6 people in my family;  at the time of the disaster I was abroad. However I came back within 20 days and found my family.  We were treated badly from the beginning. Today, although we live here we are facing many problems. For example the toilet pits are overflowing and the children have to live in very unhygienic conditions. After some time the owner of the estate was diagnosed with dengue and then the Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) came here and went on a full inspection. We also contracted diseases such as chicken pox, flu and other illnesses but not a single PHI came here initially. But everybody gets royal treatment except for us. The weekly coupon is also not sufficient for us at times. For those doing a job this may not be critical,  but many of us are unemployed.” –
S. Kalaimagar


So far we haven’t received any complaints: Nimal Abeysiri

In order to find out what action has been taken to relocate these victims, the spoke to Daily Mirror Nimal Abeysiri, the District Secretary of the Badulla district. In his comments, Mr. Abeysiri said that these victims obviously have to go through many hardships. “We are doing everything within our capacity to provide them with good living conditions. Actually speaking, the facilities and aid they receive at the camp are far better than what they had. The people involved in politics who give many promises leave them with high hopes. There is so much we can do. We are only coordinators and we do our best. So far no one has come to us complaining about anything.” Having asked about the delay of the resettlements, Mr. Abeysiri told that the constructions are not easy, especially in these areas. They have been delayed due to reasons that are beyond our control. The boulders have to be cracked in order to make space for the construction, and that should be done using chemicals and huge machines. It is a long process. We have completed building 47 houses. Hopefully by March 2016, the resettlements will be complete. These houses are luxuries compared to what the affected people had because they comprise of tiled bathrooms, double rooms, kitchens, proper water supply and other amenities.” 

We need to consider more about the sanitary facilities of women and children: Shamila Daluwatte

Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Attorney-at-law and women’s rights activist Shamila Daluwatte said that in most instances women and children have to face many inconveniences when it comes to a natural disaster. “While distributing lunch packets and other relief items, people should also consider about the sanitary facilities available to women and children. Therefore, other items such as sanitary napkins, towels and clothes should also be distributed. When these people are displaced they often have to stay together in a hall or other place until they are relocated. This is another situation that we need to look at. Sometimes both men and women will have to use washrooms in close proximity and also take a bath from a common well. This in turn will increase the chances of women being vulnerable to sexual harassment. In addition to that they should be given access to clean water and other needs in order to ensure that they are under good living conditions.”
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