Dressed in a sapphire-blue sari, Shanti Devapiriam leads Oxfam visitors through the training center she runs in Tamil Nadu, India, and then out into the surrounding communities, where she is received as a friend and honored guest.
Devapiriam is the director of Anawim Trust, a rural development organization that undertook relief efforts when the tsunami struck the coast of Tamil Nadu, India.
“Right after the tsunami," she says, "we provided people in the area villages with food, medical aid, and then temporary shelter."
But while she and her staff labored to get aid to everyone in need, she never lost sight of the particular struggles of women and children.
"Already we were working with women and children before the tsunami, because they were the most oppressed in the community. After the tsunami, initially most rehabilitation aid was given to men, who received fishing boats," says Shanti. "So we focused on the women."
She first helped women form self-help groups—community organizations where members save, lend, and invest money together. She then provided trainings to group members in both job skills and how to run a business.
In one highly successful joint venture with Anawim Trust, three self-help groups of Dalit women have come to own fifteen 30-foot fishing boats, which they rent out to local fishermen. At an impromptu meeting on the beach of Senthilveethi in March 2007, several of the women talked about the impact boat ownership has had on their lives.
"Earlier we used to work as laborers, but now we are the owners of boats," said Devika, who like many people here goes by only one name. "Now men are working in our boats. And we have confidence that we can be the owners of more."
"Now the other boat owners respect us as owners," added Maragatham, another self-help group member.
The police, too, are paying more attention to the rights of these women.
"In the past, the police didn't respect us. They ignored our complaints," said Muthulascmi, an elderly member of a self-help group. But when a motor from one of their boats was stolen, the police responded quickly. "We got it back immediately."
And with past hurts fresh in their minds, the women have taken steps to right some old wrongs. "We feel that we treat our laborers better than we used to be treated," said Maragatham. "Laborers now prefer to work with us because we always give them their fair share."
The experience of the women of Senthilveethi illustrates the impact that gaining access to high-value assets can have on impoverished women, and why gender researcher Chaman Pincha considers it a particularly effective tool for empowering women in the wake of disasters.
In June of 2006, Pincha and a team of independent researchers undertook a study—initiated and funded by Oxfam, and managed by Anawim Trust—to help document how gender affected the experiences of tsunami survivors, the various ways tsunami aid providers have integrated gender sensitivity into their programs, and what impact those programs have had on women and men.
Collaborating with a group of ten non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that share the goal of ensuring gender equity in aid delivery, she and her team carried out discussions with tsunami survivors in 45 villages served by the NGOs in the hard-hit districts of Kanniyakumari, Cuddalore, and Nagapattinam.
The field work revealed aid efforts that had missed the mark, but Chaman and her team put greater attention on practices that can serve as models for NGOs responding to future disasters.
“It was unfortunate that for the sake of avoiding bias, we couldn't hold focus groups in the areas where Anawim Trust works," says Pincha, "because a number of their programs reflect the best practices that emerged from the study."
Training women in nontraditional trades, for example.
In a spacious, well-lit room of the Anawim production center, a young woman named Selvakani sets up a job on a printing press. After two trainings followed by two years of hands-on experience, she handles the tools and equipment with ease—cleaning and installing rollers, positioning the image plate, and then running off a stack of flyers, somehow managing to keep her sari clean throughout. She prefers this work to her other alternative—agricultural labor—and with job offers at printing companies beginning to roll in, she has given herself a foothold in a relatively secure and well-paid line of work. Selvakani enjoys telling people about her job and says they respect her unusual skills. "They say, 'it's a good job that you're doing,'" she says with a smile.
"Training women in nontraditional skills breaks stereotypes and can enhance women's self-esteem. It helps them fetch better wages, and over time helps them achieve positions of leadership," says Pincha. "It's one good strategy for aid providers who are committed to women's empowerment."
The gender study, which is now being finalized, is one of several that Oxfam has carried out in the wake of the tsunami.
"By undertaking studies that draw out the experience and perspective of community members and combining that with the knowledge that aid providers have to offer, we hope to strengthen not only Oxfam programs but also those of the aid community as a whole," says Russell Miles, Oxfam America’s Tsunami Research Program Manager. "Sometimes the results confirm our hunches, sometimes they elaborate on existing knowledge, and occasionally they surprise us."
For her part, Devapiriam is looking forward to the completion of the gender study, whose recommendations she believes will help strengthen her already-impressive array of programs for women. "It's very important to us to have a chance to learn from the best practices of other organizations."
She takes her Oxfam guests to one last gathering before they leave town. In the village of Mangalawadi, a self-help group has purchased a collection of new chairs and utensils to rent out on big occasions, and today they celebrate the launch of the new business. It is a joyful event, where in amongst the formalities, spontaneous speeches erupt.
"Before we founded the self-help groups, we never had confidence in ourselves, and we had no assertiveness," says Alli, an elderly group leader, who has helped local groups collaborate with one another. "Forming a self-help group is not such a great thing in itself. Everyone is doing it. But here we don't just focus on money. Here we have created unity."