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08. April 2005

India - Womenīs meeting  © Xenia Hausner

Womenīs Meeting. For the first time women are included.

The children of Kukilimedu   © Xenia Hausner

The children of Kukilimedu. Where they will live in the future is unclear.

The old houses    © Xenia Hausner

The old houses. People repair them, but donīt life anymore there.

India - Between Water and Land

A Report from Tamil Nadu by Edit Schlaffer. Three months since the devastating Tsunami flood have passed. The fishermen on the south Indian coast are still not finding their feet again. Photos: Xenia Hausner

Two and a half hour’s drive from Chennai, former Madras, lays the village Kukilimedu. Kukilimedu has two faces: one directly on the beach what is left from the old houses and the other, a few hundred meters away, is the new residential area. The new Kukilimedu is an interim arrangement of straw and banana leaves. The huts don’t have windows, they shouldn’t cost too much. That is why they do without bathrooms too. Every house now has a small bulge, an outdoor sink area with a home made screen of leaves around. For the water, the women go through the whole village every day. It comes out of containers, but it is never enough. Cooking is not possible inside the houses, they can’t take the heat. The small world of 135 families in Kukilimedu is full of fear. It hasn’t been good since the great wave. The people have named their camps after their former villages, but the uncertain feeling, of where they will really live one day, only adds to the feeling of homelessness. On the one hand, the villagers hope to live again in the old houses on the beach and are repairing them. On the other hand, they are afraid to sleep there over night. The government has planned their new village further inland, about two kilometres from the beach. But the inhabitants are against it. How should they sight the schools of fish in the night, how should they take care that their nets and boats are not stolen, how should the women deal with the catch, which earlier they managed in their huts directly on the shore.? “If we live by the water, maybe we are in danger, but inland we don’t have a life”, says one villager. The lack of trust in the government is great. For years there were efforts to ‘magic away’ the coastline from the fishing communities and to bring in the tourists. Now many fear that the catastrophe now gives the welcome opportunity to push these plans through. The men feel lost, the topography of the sea has changed through the flood, the coast line is different, the fishermen don’t know anymore, which areas are shallow, and which are deep and dangerous. There are too few boats to start charting systematically. Only a few dare to go out into the water, in spite of the danger. They fish no more than for their own needs. The others sort out the wood from the broken catamarans. In the meantime the women and children collect the firewood. That is hard work. They march for hours with bundles of thin branches home that will last three days at most. “Why don’t we receive a plot of land, where we can plant bushes”, asks Mahdu, a widow, for whom it is particularly hard to manage herself and her 16 year old unmarried daughter. “Who will marry Nina?” she asks, “We have nothing, that I can give her. She worked as a seamstress, but the sewing machine was washed away in the flood”. Now Mahdo lives from what her neighbours give her, a bit of rice and oil to cook. “I go from door to door. And though I am welcome, I feel like a beggar”. Neela Valli, the director of the Indian aid organisation, IWID (Initiative Women in Development), came immediately after the catastrophe to Kukilimedu. At the distribution of household materials to houses she realised that 37 houses were missing off the official list. When she enquired with the authorities, it was explained that: families without a male head of household are not counted. So therefore they are quasi-nonexistent and cut off from aid distribution. Dr. Valli, not only immediately brought blankets and pots for the 37 families, but also went to the officials and complained – with success. Women-headed households will in future be registered. This case highlights the precarious condition of women in crisis situations - which can quickly become a question of life or death. The fishing villages are patriarchal communities. But in these times of emergency the traditional rules break down. The IWID used this phenomenon and is trying out an innovative democratic scheme with 500 women in four villages. They organised women’s meetings to include women in the reconstruction of the village. At first they shied away from the idea. But then the meetings gained more and more dynamism. The concept that they consequently developed is as original as it is practical. Small women collectives shall become owners of boats and nets that they subsequently hire out to the men. The profit from the catch will then be shared between the family, a share for the repairs, for communal needs and for the education of their children. The project follows the call of all UN organisations since years, for greater involvement of women in the distribution processes. Only in this way can long lasting reconstruction be safeguarded, because it has always been the women who make the village structures run. In the village of Purusham, just by Kukilimedu, you can see the theory in practice. Here the women are longing for the men to return to the seas as quickly as possible. The life, so they say is “unbearable with the men in the village all day”, The first aid packages were given out to the men and these were immediately sold on the market for money to buy alcohol. “We went hungry”, says Chitra, a 30 year old mother of four children. “Take the bottle from our men if you really want to help us”, adds her neighbour. Roy spent his whole life by the sea, now he works like the many others, out of town in building, beating bricks, hauling stone and coming home in the evening with aching bones. Then, like the other, he needs alcohol. The women talk a lot about the violent scenes played out at night. “My husband also drank before, if he was out with the boats”, explained Sara “the whole night on the wild seas under the free skies, the men drank liquor to warm them up. But now it is worse than ever. They drink, we fight over money and now, since we don’t sell fish on the market, are they twice as strong” The flood in Tamil Nadu seems not only to have taken away the houses, but also the rules, assurances and patriarchal tradition. From this, there is a potential for new developments, but also new conflicts. Ratna, an 18 year old mother of two babies excitedly recounts her first women’s meeting: “The men show us respect now. They have seen that we can really move forward, if they let us”. Another young woman with her two year old son on her lap has sadder reports: her husband had taken the silver ankle chain from the child in order to sell it. He had thrown her to the floor because she wanted some of the money. “I hit back for the first time”, she says quietly. And what does Rachel want for the future of her three daughters? “I don’t wish anymore”, she says. “I dream every night of boats. Then I run out of the house and see no boats, no sea, nothing. Then I know that our life, how is was, is over”. Edit Schlaffer and Xenia Hausner have been in India in March 2005. This report was published in the Austrian magazine Profil on the 4th of April 2005.


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