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Charity Reports Rising Abuse of Female Tsunami Survivors

By Michael Casey
Associated Press
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page A20

LAMSENIA, Indonesia, March 26 -- The tsunami that overwhelmed South Asia in December killed three times more women than men, and the resulting scarcity of female survivors has led to reports of forced marriages and rape, the British-based charity Oxfam International said Saturday.

Although official statistics do not provide the gender of victims, partial data indicates that many more women than men were among the more than 200,000 people killed or declared missing after the Dec. 26 tsunami devastated the coastlines of 11 countries around the Indian Ocean.

The impact on women was seen especially in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India. Indonesia, the country hardest hit by the earthquake-generated tsunami, now has villages where men outnumber women 10-to-1.

"The tsunami has dealt a crushing blow to women and men across the region. In some villages it now appears that up to 80 percent of those killed were women," said Becky Buell, Oxfam's policy director. "This disproportionate impact will lead to problems for years to come unless everyone working on the aid effort addresses the issue now. We are already hearing about rapes, harassment and forced early marriages."

The report concluded that women suffered disproportionately because they had a more difficult time outrunning the surging waters or they were at home while the men were out at sea fishing or in the fields working.

As a result, men now far outnumber women in crowded camps and scattered settlements, and the women are vulnerable to a range of abuses, the report said. Sri Lankan women have reportedly been sexually assaulted in camp toilets and domestic violence is on the rise, the report found.

According to Oxfam and activists, Indonesian women have been sexually harassed in camps, forced or rushed into marrying much older men and victimized by abusive Indonesian soldiers, who have strip-searched them.

"We know of at least three marriages in which women married older widowers. What we don't know is how forced it was," said Ines Smyth, gender adviser for Oxfam.

"When we asked them, they say they have an obligation to their family and were frightened for the future. If you lost everything you had, including your family, it's very difficult to refuse whatever is being offered, whether it's protection or the possibility of a house."

Indonesian activists say it is difficult to get women to talk about the abuse or report it to authorities. The few women left in coastal settlements interviewed said they were unaware of any abuse and they were focusing on rebuilding their lives.

The coast of the hard-hit province of Aceh is dotted with the remnants of villages dominated by widowers. Lamsenia, a once-thriving fishing and farming village of 833 on the west coast, now has only 35 women among its 158 survivors, and all but one of those women have moved elsewhere. Gampong Pandee, on the edge of the provincial capital Banda Aceh, was reduced from 1,139 people to 246 -- with only 20 women.

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