Post-tsunami Aceh: It takes a woman to rebuild a village

After the Dec. 26 tsunami wave receded, Deyah Mapplam became a village of men.

Of 4,500 people, just 270 survived, and only one-third were women. And it is that gender imbalance, as much as the loss of homes and livelihoods, that remains a concern here.

For local men like Mohammad Nur, the solution is simple: to get remarried. But female survivors and Mr. Nur's new wife, Hadijah, say it's more complex than that. Women need to be involved in the planning process to rebuild Deyah Mapplam - or else the town may not be fit for habitation.

Hadijah, a 20-something who recently came to Deyah Mapplam to marry a local farmer here, says one need look no further than the temporary barracks where she and the village survivors now live. Clearly, they were not designed by a woman.

"The main thing is that the toilet is too far from our rooms, so if you have to go to toilet at midnight, it is too dark to go" and still feel safe, says Hadijah. "And there is no privacy inside the houses," she adds, noting that she and her new husband would like to have a baby.

Six months after the tsunami, the disproportionate toll on women is still being felt. According to some reports, the survivor ratio of males to females averages almost three to one. The imbalance has made it more difficult for women to have a voice in the planning and reconstruction of their communities - especially in a Muslim country where men tend to make major decisions. But women's activists and many Acehnese female survivors say that women's involvement is crucial to creating livable communities.

"Basic community planning decisions affect most of the aspects of family life," says Nicola Rounce, a project coordinator at UNIFEM, the UN's agency for women's development. "It affects the right to food, the right to sanitation, the right to have guardianship of children, and even access to marketplaces.

"We used to say [to Acehnese officials] that you're leaving out 50 percent of the population in the decision-making process," she says, but today's gender balance has made that situation even worse. "If only we could say [it was 50 percent] now," she says wryly.

The gender imbalance in Indonesia's Aceh Province is a phenomenon found in most of the dozen or so countries affected by the tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004. Reasons for the disproportionate death toll range from the fact that women are less likely than men to know how to swim to the fact that women were more likely to be carrying babies or holding elderly relatives when the flood hit. Traditional long dresses also made it difficult for women to flee.

But if the giant wave hit women hardest, cultural norms in a traditional province like Aceh are doing little to ease matters.

In a report issued by Flower Aceh, a nongovernmental organization based in Singapore, Suraiya Kamaruzzaman wrote: "Coordinators in charge of relief work are not gender sensitive. They think giving cooking utensils and washing detergent equals meeting women's needs."

Last month, close to 400 women from Aceh's 21 districts gathered to discuss women's participation in the recovery and reconstruction process. The All-Acehnese Women's Congress submitted recommendations to the Indonesian government's Aceh Reconstruction Agency. The No. 1 recommendation: the re-establishment of balai inong, or "women's houses."

UNIFEM officials say that before the tsunami struck, every village in Aceh had a balai inong where women could meet to network and work together on projects. Congressional participants said that rebuilding these women's houses in villages 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.

At Camp Pidie, on the western coast of Banda Aceh, some parents of teenage girls are so concerned about their daughters' safety that they are marrying them off at age 16, according to Ms. Kamaruzzaman. At least then, the parents reasoned, the girls will have husbands to "protect them."

Down the coast from Deyah Mapplam, Mohammad Daud Agam, cradles his 3-year-old granddaughter, Alfiatun, in the town's coffee shop. The girl and Mr. Agam's son are the only family he has left, and the elderly fish-seller admits he's having a hard time adjusting to life without women.

"All the women in my family died, so now I have to do all the cooking," he says, adding that his own experience is unusual in the village. The hills in his village of Pulot are close enough and low enough to climb, a fact that contributed to a relatively low death toll, and higher survival rates for women.

Now Mr. Agam just hopes that he and his family can survive his cooking. "This is a new experience for me," he smiles. "I just cook and we eat, and maybe I'm getting a little better."

In Meunasah Mesjid - where only 159 of the 1,110 residents survived, and only 45 of those were women - Hajji Rusli, a local businessman, says that most of the widowers who can afford to marry are doing so, although men who have no surviving children are focusing on getting jobs and building up their savings to build their homes later.

"It's really, really difficult to live without women," says Hajji Rusli, sitting at a coffee shop. "But, personally, I don't want to remarry. I want to remember my wife, how she behaved, how she thought about things. She was a business partner; she managed my rice factory. I just want to remember her a long time."

Amiruddin Sulaiman - a farmer who lives in the Deyah Mapplam barracks - also misses his former wife and family, but says he can no longer afford to mourn. Last month, he married a 19-year-old girl named Linawati, and he plans to start a new family soon.

His new wife doesn't attend planning meetings, Sulaiman says, but she does have lots of ideas of how the new village should be built. "She says if we have a new house, she wants a bathing room and toilet inside the house. Of course, women need a place to sit together and they should have a say in how to make the new village," he says.

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