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Man-made disasters


A meeting between Turkish and Indian women - affected by earthquakes - showed that they were determined to rebuild not just their homes but also their lives. They were also prepared to share and learn from their experiences, to find ways to turn the tragedy into stable development.

Involving women in reconstruction ...not a 'senseless' thing.

WHEN some men, who had "adopted" and rebuilt one of the over 7,000 villages destroyed in the January 26, 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, were asked whether they had consulted women before rebuilding their houses, their automatic response was, "Of course not, women are senseless. Why consult them? We are giving them everything they need."

The outcome of such misplaced confidence in their own wisdom is evident all over the earthquake-affected areas in Gujarat. Here are the new man-made (literally) disasters — the "adoptive children' of these venerable "fathers", so to speak. Anywhere you go, you will find houses without toilets, with inappropriately placed kitchens, with concrete walls where you cannot add a shelf, hang a picture, with structures that can never be transformed into places you can call home.

The men quoted above were talking not just to any women; they were addressing a group of women who had travelled a long distance from another disaster zone, Turkey. Indeed, in almost every respect, their country is much worse off. Over 92 per cent of Turkey is earthquake prone; 95 per cent of its population and 75 per cent of its industries are under constant threat. On August 17, 1999 an earthquake of such ferocity struck Marmara province that an estimated 40,000 people were killed and many more injured. Six months later, on December 12, 1999, another earthquake hit a different part of the country.

Five women who have lived through and survived these disasters in Turkey spent two weeks in India recently supported by Groots, a network of women's organisations in 40 countries. They travelled to Gujarat and to Latur in Maharashtra, which had suffered from an earthquake in 1993. In both places, they spoke to women like them, women who had lost everything, or lost a great deal. Women who were determined to rebuild not just their homes but also their lives. Women who had never imagined that they could step out of their homes. Yet, like them, these women were prepared to travel long distances, even cross the seas to share their experiences, to learn from others, to find ways to turn the tragedy of a disaster into the opportunity of a sane and stable development.

Hamiye, a 36-year-old woman from Izmit province of Turkey, recalled the day her hometown, where she had lived for 17 years, disappeared under a pile of rubble. She happened to be away at the time. She did not know whether her husband, a paint factory worker, and her three children had survived. To her relief, her immediate family were alive. But their home was gone. And many of their neighbours and close friends were dead. "We came to India," she told me, "with the same feelings that we had when we suffered after the earthquake. If I hadn't lived through that disaster, perhaps I would not have understood what other women feel. But here we found that women shared the same pain and fear. Women are mothers, wives, protectors. We have a huge role in society to do the things men cannot do. But this is hidden. If we women unite, then we can change this."

Hamiye, and her four friends, attended a meeting in Jamnagar, which brought together 150 women from Gujarat and Maharashtra who had survived disaster.

Despite differences in language and culture, the women were able to exchange their experiences. And they found that there was much that was common.

The Turkish women could not understand how houses could be built without toilets. They also exclaimed at the absence of childcare facilities. But they acknowledged that while the women in India had to worry about common needs, like the absence of water and sanitation, in Turkey, where these needs had been met, they were more concerned about individual needs — like finding work, or having childcare. The recent economic crisis in their country had placed most people under even greater pressure to find livelihood options.

In Turkey, the houses that collapsed were built of brick and mortar and were multi-storeyed. In Gujarat and Latur, the women noted that the construction material was different, the houses were single-storied and therefore the death toll was lower. But these women did not travel to Bhuj or Ahmedabad. Otherwise they would have seen the parallels. As in Turkey, here too multi-storey buildings collapsed not because of the force of the earthquake but due to poor construction.

As in Gujarat, in Turkey too while those who could prove ownership of homes have got new houses — although they are expected to pay for them while in Gujarat they are virtually free — the tenants in both countries have been left high and dry. In Turkey, the tenants constitute up to 60 per cent of people affected by the earthquake. Two and a half years later, these people continue to live in temporary shelters and, according to these women, there is still no policy in place to rehouse them.

And of course, stories of corruption, of relief supplies disappearing found an echo in both places. The Turkish women recalled how people from areas not affected by the earthquake descended on the disaster zone and made off with supplies. In one province, leather jackets donated for the victims disappeared within one hour. They recalled the wastage because inappropriate relief material was sent. I still recall the surreal scene of a tree-lined road on the way to Rapar, in Kutch district, which was festooned with discarded T-shirts and shorts that were sent by well-meaning people.

But like their Indian sisters, the women from Turkey have also started organising themselves into savings groups. The Foundation for the Support of Women's Work (FSWW) has helped by setting up centres in the affected areas. Here women can meet, get child support and also have some fun together.

In Latur earlier and now in Gujarat, the Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP) has been working to organise women into self-help groups. It believes that relief and reconstruction following a disaster should contribute to long-term development and this is only possible if women can play a central role.

The Turkish women said they were impressed by the confidence of the women they met, and how far they had gone in terms of organisation. Indeed, at the Jamnagar meeting, when some women spoke helplessly about corruption, others asked them why they had not gone in a delegation to the authorities and complained about this. The message was clear; don't sit back and expect things to change. Organise yourselves, and demand that things change.

To hear such a message coming out of places where people have been literally struck by lightening, by a disaster, which no one could predict, is unexpected. It is a kind of positive "tremor" that should shake all our establishments. And specially the men who believe that women are "senseless".

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