Social stigma, depression among widowers, increased alcohol use among teenagers are all highlighted in the voices of tsunami survivors that were captured in a series of "People's Consultations" in Sri Lanka.
The 800 focus-group discussions that were carried out in 1,100 villages in the 13 affected districts in the island were conducted by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the University of Colombo.
These Consultations have allowed tsunami survivors to express their concerns and aspirations, thereby empower them to map out their futures. It not only helped officials ascertain the needs, concerns and ideas of the affected, and share these findings with relevant development actors, the meetings also turned out to be an important way to disseminate information on critical issues and decisions to the affected communities.
The dialogues highlight that more women than men perished in the disaster, leaving an unprecedented number of widowers suffering from depression and stigma. Many husbands who lost their wives on December 26 find it difficult to look after young children while also being sole breadwinners for their families.
In addition, the research reveals an increase in alcohol consumption among men and teenage boys, large numbers of absenteeism and a high number of dropouts recorded in schools in affected districts since the tsunami.
Some of the people affected by the tsunami are suffering from social stigma and many talk of being labelled as ‘tsunami-karayo’ – tsunami fellows – or beneficiaries of the ‘golden wave’. The initial findings show that some communities are now divided over many issues and relationships amongst neighbours, relatives and friends have seen drastic changes in some places. “The old harmony of the village has disappeared and in its place, envy, greed and resentment have grown,” the report says.
“This initiative has been invaluable not only in identifying the needs of people affected by the tsunami and in informing them of their rights and duties, it has also provided the space for some of the most vulnerable people in the various communities to participate in the recovery and reconstruction of their own lives and livelihoods,” said Sanaka Samarasinha, the Deputy Country Director of UNDP.
“It is now critical that effective steps are taken by all those involved in the tsunami recovery effort to follow up immediately on these findings. We must capitalize on our successes and address the challenges identified by the people themselves so that we don’t fail to meet the expectations raised through these consultations,” he said.
On the issue of housing, there is consensus among people across the board that they should be consulted and involved in the rebuilding process. The initial feedback shows that some fear that stringent adherence to the buffer zone policy will aggravate the challenge of finding land for rebuilding, particularly in those districts where land is scarce to begin with.
A tsunami-affected community in a village located in the Galle district also reported that they feel kept in the dark about how the tsunami aid is being managed. “Frankly, we know very little about the mechanism being implemented on our behalf. We are keen to receive answers to these questions. Who gets what from whom? Who does what for whom? Have we got the freedom to know?” enquired a community member from Galle.
During the consultations, it appeared clearly that information sharing between the local communities and those involved in the recovery activities were vital to ensure the success of rebuilding back better. “Earlier, there was no mechanism to ensure that the village-level opinions got to top-level authorities.
This process has given us a voice and is helping us rebuild our lives,” said Namal Lakshanta a fisherman from Beruwela in the South who lost his boat and livelihood in the tsunami and is now starting to rebuild his life.
“The government and others involved in relief, rehabilitation and recovery require
people’s participation in order to make correct judgments about related policies and relief mechanisms,” said Professor Lakshman Dissanayake, Director of the Colombo University Extension Centre, which jointly conducted the consultations with the Human Rights Commission.
Meanwhile, consultations with government, NGO and other reconstruction partners showed that the weight of delivering tsunami assistance fell squarely on the shoulders of the district administration, at a time when they were insufficiently prepared to cope with an effort of this magnitude.
The consultations which are funded by Norway and Germany, include discussions with the relevant Government Agents (GAs), Divisional Secretaries (DS), line ministries and other government officials.
The full report will be accessible at www.undp.lk