All posts by Ross Wortham

A gendered look a disaster response and recovery: post-tsunami Aceh, Indonesia

It has been nearly six years since the devastating Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami struck the coast of Northern Sumatra, and now with many other major natural disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti sitting on the forefront of the aid communities’ mind, it is now more important than ever to look back at lessons that should have been learnt.

The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami is well known as one of the most devastating natural disasters on record, with a staggering death toll topping 150,000 and displaced persons at near 500,000 in Indonesia alone (Eye on Aceh 2006; Fitzpatrick 2008; Global Exchange 2006).  However, what is less widely acknowledged is the devastating impact the tsunami and the humanitarian aid and recovery response itself, had on women and girls (Eye on Aceh 2006; MacDonald 2005). In the Aceh province of Northern Sumatra, by far the hardest hit area by the tsunami, many factors play into the disadvantages that women face (Canny 2005; Choo 2005). Whether it is religion, local culture, politics, or the tsunami aid response itself, it is evident that women were and still are disproportionately disenfranchised (Fitzpatrick 2008; Schulze 2005; Nowak & Caulfield 2008).

Aceh has a deep-rooted history in Islam and with that a strong sense of male-centred beliefs, patriarchal power and hierarchical social structures (Choo 2005; Burke 2005). Therefore, applying a feminist lens provides clarity to the full scope of needs and underlying constraints the Acehnese people endured and still endure pre and post Tsunami. Prior to the tsunami and throughout the reconstruction phase, it is obvious now, that women have been more marginalized than men and were often neglected from both social activities and even aid projects (Nowak & Caulfield 2008; UNIFEM-ESEASIA n.d.; Fitzpatrick 2008).

Shariah law officially governs Aceh, formalizing its political and cultural systems as a patriarchal, male-centred society where women’s roles are often limited to the domestic sphere (Yusuf n.d.; Mohanty 1988). This greatly impacts many rights of women, such as the right to movement, the right to work and earn an income, and the right to own land and property (Fitzpatrick 2008; Nowak & Caulfield 2008; Salkeld 2008). These misogynistic practices greatly impacted women’s ability to recover from the tsunami, however so did the disengendered approach inadvertently taken by many of the international and local NGOs (Schulze 2005). Programs focusing on male-centred livelihoods and stereotypical female livelihoods, i.e. cake baking and sewing, further emphasized the disparity of women’s economic roles in the family and in their recovery (Eye on Aceh 2006; Nowak & Caulfield 2008).

Although men and women’s livelihoods were equally disrupted by the tsunami itself, women had a more difficult time recovering from this loss for many reasons including neglect from NGOs, lack of women’s ability to engage in micro-credit program schemes, and lack of capacity building activities for women (UNIFEM-ESEASIA n.d.; International Labour Organization 2005). Prior to the tsunami women’s income generating activities remained less substantial and after the tsunami, the international NGOs focused the majority of their development projects on the head of household, typically men, neglecting the widowed women (International Labour Organization 2005; Nowak & Caulfield 2008). Women were overburdened with an increase of unpaid work, continuing to take on the responsibility of domestic duties including caring for the sick, the elderly and children further limiting their ability to recover (Choo 2005; Fitzpatrick 2008; Vianen 2006; Salkeld 2008).

In addition to this, throughout the relief and reconstruction process following the tsunami, many international NGOs dominated the agenda disempowering many of the local NGOs, either by ‘brain drain’, competing for the highly qualified staff from the local NGOs, or overpowering the pre-existing projects with external donor driven initiatives (Canny 2005; Easton 2005). Without utilizing a true participatory approach, many of these projects did not necessarily focus on nor meet the needs of the people, especially women (Eye on Aceh 2006; Canny 2005).  To further exacerbate the gross negligence of many international NGO projects, human rights seem to be overlooked in order to meet donor driven demands, as the ‘experts’ initiated projects, especially in housing and reconstruction, often with little consultation with the communities.

Lessons learnt from this massive undertaking are critical in building the capacity of us as individuals working within the aid and development sectors along with the organisations themselves. Utilizing a strengths-based or assets-based approach encourages women to look beyond their stereotypical gender roles in income generation such as sewing and cake baking and expand to non-traditional roles, which not only provide a higher wage but also acts to empower women through fostering sustainable income and independence (Nowak & Caulfield 2008). The long-term outcomes of this approach are often an increase in women’s roles within the social sphere, greater income generation for female-headed households, and better quality of life for all in the community.

Taking a pluralist feminist perspective allows for attention to be drawn to the many diverse and equally important aspects of a society that impact social change (Veal 1998). Utilizing a gendered approach in many if not all humanitarian aid and development projects is critical. (Charlier & Caubergs 2007; Vianen 2006).


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Canny, B 2005, A review of NGO coordination in Aceh post earthquake/tsunami, International Council of Voluntary Agencies, Geneva.

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