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Empowering women affected by the tsunami

© UNICEF Malaysia/2005/Nadchatram
Women from coastal villages affected by the tsunami participate in a workshop designed to equip them with skills to help them identify business opportunities following the loss of their livelihoods.

By Lydia Lubon

KUALA MUDA KEDAH, Malaysia, 20 December 2005 –  “It’s not easy being a single mother, supporting three children on my own. When the tsunami washed everything away – my sewing machines, my savings and my home – I felt like I didn’t have the will to go on,” says Hamidah Bte Che Rus, looking with preoccupation at her young daughter. “But I thank God for sparing the lives of my three children.”  

Compared to its less fortunate neighbors, Malaysia was largely spared the catastrophic effects of the tsunami. Nonetheless, 10,000 people were affected by the natural disaster, and in Hamidah’s remote fishing village of Kuala Muda, at least 2,742 families were affected. The region’s devastated coastline endured millions of dollars worth of destruction. Like Hamidah, 115 surviving families are now living in Government-funded transit houses, awaiting the completion of the Government’s two-year home rebuilding plan.

Underscoring vulnerability and inequality

Malaysia’s women have in many ways been the silent victims of the tsunami, and UNICEF is working to improve their situation. "UNICEF’s global experience tells us that involving women in the recovery efforts is essential. But too often the voices of women are sidelined or excluded altogether,” says UNICEF’s Representative to Malaysia, Gaye Phillips.

"Malaysia’s women have in many ways been the silent victims of the tsunami, and UNICEF is working to improve their situation."

Gaye Phillips

In the wake of the tsunami, an assessment conducted by one of UNICEF’s local partners, Pusat Jana Daya (EMPOWER), revealed a lack of consultation with women. UNICEF sent teams from the community-based organisation to conduct ground assessments through focus group discussions in various affected villages. The investigation revealed that, up until the tsunami struck, women had been actively involved in economic activities such as tending livestock, vegetable farming, dress making, baking and fish processing. Their jobs helped support their families.

“Since I am a widow, I have been the sole income earner for my three children for the past few years. But since the tsunami it has been very difficult for me to resume my work without my home and my sewing machines,” says Hamidah. Addressing the need for women and including them at all stages of Malaysia’s post-tsunami recovery plan has been challenging.  But their involvement is crucial, and will have the added long term benefit of increasing the power of their voices in all areas.

Workshops designed to empower women

© UNICEF Malaysia/2005/Nadchatram
Hamidah Che Rus feels she finally has something to smile about, following the women's empowerment workshop.

In recognition to the importance of empowering women, UNICEF, together with its partners UNFPA and EMPOWER, engineered one of the country’s first efforts to address the needs of tsunami-affected women, with a workshop specifically designed for them and their children. The three-day community education program – one of two UNICEF-funded programs for women – was created to highlight their unique situation and help them communicate these needs to loved ones. “Some women told me that during this workshop, they realised for the first time that their views and needs are valuable, and in some cases, just as important as their husbands’,” says Yunus Ali, Director of EMPOWER. 

UNICEF recognises that in order to emotionally and psychologically support children affected by the tsunami their mothers must first be equipped with the tools to sustain and support themselves. “Women are the main caregivers in the home. If their ability to nurture the family is inhibited, then the impact is felt by everyone, especially their children,” says UNICEF’s Phillips.

Rebuilding homes, rebuilding lives

Hamidah and her children will remain in a Government-funded transit home for an indefinite amount of time, while their new house is being rebuilt. Like all mothers, she wants what’s best for her children. Above all else, she knows that her children depend on her for strength and guidance. “After the tsunami, for a long time, I felt I did not know how to go on living.  But I forced myself to move forward. I didn’t want my children to see I was afraid, because if I lose hope, who will be there for them?”  

Sabine Dolan contributed to this story from New York






December 2005:
UNICEF correspondent Steve Nettleton reports on UNICEF-supported initiatives to help Malaysian women affected by the tsunami.

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