Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Ecofeminism and Natural Disasters: Sri Lankan Women Post-Tsunami

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Ecofeminism and Natural Disasters: Sri Lankan Women Post-Tsunami

Article excerpt


The consequences of natural disasters impact individuals at a social, cultural, and political intersection (Ariyabandu & Wickramasinghe, 2003; Blaikie, Cannon, Davis, & Wisner, 2003; Mileti, 1999; Quarantelli, 1994). Individuals and insitutions play a role in determining the extent to which communities will be impacted by the disaster and its aftermath (Enarson, 2004; Enarson & Morrow, 1998; Wiest, Mocellin, & Motsisi, 1994). The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami is no exception. The impacts of and responses to the tsunami existed within a context of warfare, militarization, and socioeconomic hardship in Sri Lanka (Uyangoda, 2005; de Mel & Ruwanpura, 2006; Hyndman, 2008).

In the spirit of Ruwanpura's (2008) argument, the authors support and will substantiate the claim: "there is a case to be made for understanding the pre-existing social structures and social preconditions for women's marginalization ..." (p. 326). A contextualized understanding of the effects of the tsunami on women is especially important given the negative impacts on Sri Lanka's most vulnerable populations. A survey conducted by the Asian Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development reported that in Aceh, Indonesia, India, and Sri Lanka almost 80% of tsunami fatalities were women. Among the women who died, the most vulnerable were widows, single or disabled women, women with low income, and those belonging to marginalized racial or cultural groups (Abeysekera, 2006).

In the landmark book, Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States, Mileti (1999) discusses the critical interrelatedness among the forms of oppression that subjugate marginalized communities during and after environmental hardships. Mileti argues that the adversities following natural disasters are designed by society to harm certain groups and protect others. The natural disaster is not inherently disastrous. Rather, the natural phenomenon has disastrous effects on groups of people who hold fewer resources and less social capital than others. Individuals' increased vulnerability after disaster is reflective of a larger process, a manifestation of social relationships that are determined by a variety of sociocultural factors, such as gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status (SES), age, and disability (Ariyabandu & Wickramasinghe, 2003; Blaikie et al., 2003; Quarantelli, 1994).

An intersectional analysis is critical for understanding the effects of natural disasters for women. The concept of intersectionality says that forms of stratification such as race, class, and gender, must be studied in relationship to one another in order to understand the perspectives of marginalized individuals and communities (Crenshaw, 1991). Furthermore, Collins (1990) argues that these intersections must be conceptualized as a "matrix of domination", which addresses the power dynamic at play. The "matrix of domination" in Sri Lanka reflects the interceding cultural, ideological, and religious viewpoints that preceded and followed the tsunami (de Mel, 2007). We also argue that age and disability status are central to an intersectional analysis, particularly when discussing individuals' responses to natural disaster.

Although there is no blanket theoretical frame that covers all discussions on natural disasters, most literature includes a social vulnerability approach, which assumes that the effects of natural disasters are socially constructed and reflective of regional and global distributions of power (Blaikie et al., 2003; Enarson, 2004; Enarson, Fothergill, & Peek, 2006; Hewitt, 1997). While research has argued for the value of a feminist analysis of women's hardships following natural disaster, Sri Lankan women's vulnerability has yet to be conceptualized within an ecofeminist framework. The authors' adoption of an ecofeminist lens reflects our commitment to understanding human reactions and relationships to natural disasters in the given social context. …

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