Natural Disasters

Cyclone Fani: Women were left with just one cloth to cover body, manage menstruation

In the absence of gender-sensitive disaster response mechanism, women in a Puri village tore the only cloth they had after the disaster destroyed everything

By Pragati Prava
Published: Friday 07 June 2019
A hut destroyed by Cyclone Fani in Arakuda village in Odisha’s Puri district. Photo: Pragati Prava

A woman is wearing a half torn sari in Arakuda, a village in Odisha’s Puri district where extremely severe Cyclone Fani made landfall on May 3, 2019. When asked why she was dressed this way, she said, “I had to tear my only sari for my daughter to use as periods rag. I also had to spare my only blouse for that too,” the woman said on condition of anonymity.

Her blank face spoke volumes about the embarrassment the womenfolk of the village were going through weeks after the cyclone hit them.

The people of Arakuda, a fishers’ community village adjacent to the mouth of the Chilika lake in Brahmagiri block with a population of more than 12,000, have seen several cyclones. They had faced the Super Cyclone in 1999, Phailin in 2013, Hudhud in 2014 and several others following that.

But Fani came with destructions beyond their expectation. For the hapless women and adolescent girls of the village it is a lot worse than other cyclones. 

All the women wake up hours before the break of dawn to finish bathing. They are on their toes to manage time to take bath and wash the single piece of cloth they have to ensure it dries before the men folk wake up. Reason: All their clothes and other belongings are buried under the debris of their houses destroyed by the cyclone.

“I have to walk with my mother to the Chilika Lake’s mouth in the dark twice every day — once before dawn and once after dusk — to wash the used period rags. The place is deserted and dark and the water is saline,” said a 15-year-old girl in the village. She has no other option but to wash and reuse the clothes in brackish water in an unsafe condition. She can't wash them in the flowing artesian wells (there are at least 10 such wells in the village) even when it is dark, as it is considered inauspicious.

Similar is the plight of other women and girls who are struggling to handle their periods when the devastation cyclone has already put their lives, livelihood and houses in jeopardy.

Safety and sanitation

“Our struggle does not end here. We get goose bumps as darkness approaches as we are worried for the safety of our daughters and daughters-in-law. How can we ensure their safety when we have lost everything,” said Nila Behera, who has three daughters-in-law and three grown-up girls.     

So all the women decided to sleep at an open space near the Marine Police Station. “While the vast open space with cemented floor is one reason we chose the place, presence of the police is another,” said Sukanti Behera, a resident of Arakuda village.

These villagers, who have seen several cyclones, are out of practice in handling their sanitation requirements owing to Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM).

“Earlier, we used to defecate in the open but for the last few years we became used to toilets provided under SBM. Getting used to toilets makes it difficult for us to defecate in the open again. It is more than humiliating for us to hold a can of water and scurry for a suitable place to defecate in the day time and at nights there is fear of snakes and insects,” said Gorama Behera, an Arakuda resident.

Make relief gender-sensitive 

Bisakha Bhanja, member, National Alliance of Women's Organisations (NAWO), who has visited several disaster-affected areas, said the impact is much higher on women than men.

“Provision of clothes is not yet in the government’s immediate relief package and several women are facing humiliating condition due to want of clothes. The government, while providing Rs 2,000, a polyethene sheet and 50 kilogrammes rice to each affected household, should have made a point to include clothes, at least for women, along with it,” said Bhanja.

The government's decision to provide free sanitary napkins for a few months, however, was a welcome move, she added. Though proper steps should be taken to ensure all women and adolescent girls avail them.

Bhanja also demanded shelters for women to rest as most places were occupied by men. “There should be shelters for women so they can rest with dignity since village community halls and chaupals are occupied by men. Women have no place to spend the muggy afternoons. The condition of pregnant women and lactating mothers is beyond expression,” added Bhanja.

On being asked about inclusion of clothes in the immediate response package, Special Relief Commissioner Bishnupada Sethi said, “It is tough to buy clothes for all as it depends on gender, size, religion, age and other factors. Also, possibility of a scam in procuring clothes can’t be ruled out.” He added that anganwadi centres have already started distributing sanitary napkins. 

Experts feel that while Odisha has attained a feat in resuce operations this time, a lot of thought still needs to go into post-cyclone relief, restoration and rehabilitation efforts.

“Women’s dignity and health, including menstrual health of adolescent girls, gets a severe hit in such conditions and that needs to be addressed. Such cyclones are going to be frequent in future, and their intensities will increase due to climate change. We need to revamp our strategy to address issues of women’s health and hygiene, sanitation and drinking water,” said environmentalist Ranjan Panda.

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