Academic journal article Adult Learning

Surviving Women's Learning Experiences from the Tsunami in Aceh

Academic journal article Adult Learning

Surviving Women's Learning Experiences from the Tsunami in Aceh

Article excerpt

Abstract: This study investigated surviving women's learning experiences from the 2004 tsunami in Aceh. Women were the majority of casualties and the most vulnerable after the tsunami. Almost a decade later, we used a conceptual framework of experiential learning, critical reflection, and transformative learning to understand the surviving women's ways of learning after the disaster. This paper highlights a qualitative study from a larger mixed methods study. Of the larger study's 450 survey respondents, we interviewed 103 participants using a semi-structured interview protocol for 1 to 1.5 hr. From those participants, this paper highlights 13 women who articulated significant learning during their experience. The findings indicate the women learnt through reflection, talking, and feelings. Furthermore, their learning and reflection on life's experiences enabled them to strike a balance and lead a better life. This study highlights that learning experiences in a critical life event can eventually result in a person's changed behavior, attitudes, knowledge, beliefs, or skills.

Keywords: women adult, learning, reflection, feelings, experience


On December 26, 2004, the most powerful earthquake in 40 years struck the Indian Ocean, 150 km off the coast of the Indonesian province of Aceh. Of the 12 nations hit by the resulting tsunami, Indonesia suffered the most with massive damage to the environment and livelihood of the people in Aceh (Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency Report, 2005). The tsunami destroyed entire coastal communities and decimated families, sweeping away everyone and everything in its path.

Women were the majority of casualties during the tsunami. Several explanations for women's high mortality have been offered. Specifically, women were not trained to swim or climb trees, tended to be at home at the time of the disaster, and were more likely to protect their parents and children. Thus, many did not run to seek safety when the water came. Since the tsunami, women have been largely ignored in terms of facilities, health, education, and protection. In the aftermath of the tsunami, they are as vulnerable to abuses as ever, if not more so.

In addition to losing lives, the tsunami robbed women of their home industry livelihoods as equipment and tools used to till the land for rice, coconut, and vegetables were lost. Many also lost their microenterprises that included selling food and handicraft at bazaars. On the domestic front, young surviving women bore the burden of looking after motherless children, cooking, keeping house for a multiple households, and, in some cases, entering marriages regardless of whether they consented. There were also instances of domestic violence and forcing widows into prostitution (Mathiaparanam, 2007). In short, women struggled to cope with the disaster and new responsibilities.

The phenomenon of learning among the surviving women is complex and difficult to capture. However, we believe there is consistent affirmation that learning is of utmost importance to human beings, in fact, the very essence of living. There is no question that humans are shaped by their experiences; learning that occurs from life experience has received much attention in adult development literature (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007). The aim of this study was to investigate surviving women's learning experiences from the tsunami in Aceh.

Conceptual Framework

Much of the literature on natural disasters addresses cause and effect, environmental issues, humanitarian assistance, and disaster planning (East West Center Report, 2005). Little attention is given to the learning of vulnerable people or communities resulting from a natural disaster. We understand learning as attending to and reflecting on an experience resulting in present or future changes in a person's behavior, attitudes, knowledge, beliefs, or skills (Merriam & Clark, 1991). …

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