General Articles

The Tsunami Increases Women and Adolescents Vulnerability to Sexual Violence and HIV Transmission

The tsunami disaster has stunned the world with its devastation. The number of people dead, missing, or injured is staggering. Governments, international aid agencies, and non-governmental organizations from across the globe are rallying to address every aspect of the vast humanitarian need. It is critical that sexual health and safety be among the world’s priorities for assistance to the region. In the aftermath, women and young people are more vulnerable to violence and exploitation, particularly sexual violence and exploitation.

"The tsunami disaster has destroyed entire communities. It has exacerbated all of the pre-existing problems in a region struggling with poverty and conflict and created a new set of dire circumstances ripe for the spread of HIV/AIDS. In relief and rebuilding efforts, we-the global community-must ensure that all aspects of all people’s health and safety are adequately addressed," said Bill Smith, vice president for public policy at SIECUS. "People’s sexual and reproductive health and rights cannot be left out. They are no less fundamental than other components of mental and physical health," he said.

At Risk for Sexual Violence and Exploitation

During a crisis, the effects of poverty, powerlessness, and social instability are intensified, increasing people’s vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. In such circumstances, women and children are at increased risk of violence, and can be compelled to trade sex to gain access to basic needs such as food, water, or even security.1

There are already reports of rape and sexual abuse in camps for those who survived the tsunami. Since the tsunami struck in Sri Lanka on December 26, at least three cases of adults sexually abusing children in relief centers have been reported. In addition, authorities have learned of at least two gang rapes of women outside the camps.2 NGOs in Sri Lanka have also reported multiple incidents of rape and molestation of women and girls during rescue operations and in temporary shelters.3 Authorities expect that many sexual abuse cases at the camps will go unreported.4

Women and girls are also facing sexual harassment that threatens their safety and prevents them from utilizing aid. In Aceh, women volunteers have reported facing harassment and intimidation.5 In a camp in Sri Lanka, one woman-who lost her 5-year-old daughter, her husband, and mother-told of being harassed in the camp on her way to the toilet. As a result, women at the camp now go to the toilet in groups.6 Fear of attack or harassment also impedes their ability to procure food, water, and other necessities.7 This affects not only the women themselves but also their surviving family members, neighbors, and other community members, as women are often responsible for caring for those survivors who are unable to care for themselves.

Providing Critical Interventions

Experts agree that failure to protect sexual and reproductive rights during the relief and rebuilding efforts will have long term repercussions.8

To address these needs, the United Nation Population Fund (UNFPA) is raising emergency funds for a vast range of reproductive health services and supplies, including: rehabilitation of health care premises, psycho-social counseling and care, medicines, and technical assistance as well as supplies to ensure safe child delivery and reestablish emergency obstetric care. UNFPA is also funding prevention and treatment of violence against women and youth and educational programs and drop-in centers for young people.9

Unfortunately, efforts to provide basic sexual and reproductive health care have already come under attack from far-right groups. Despite the fact that 50,000 women in the region are due to give birth during the next three months,10 Focus on the Family has publicly attacked the United Nation’s Population Fund for attempting to provide reproductive health care to tsunami survivors.11

"We have an opportunity here to apply lessons learned from past humanitarian crises," said Smith. "Women and young people are uniquely vulnerable, and we have to employ effective means of addressing their needs."


  1. Guidelines for HIV Prevention Interventions in Emergency Situations, (United Nations Inter-Agency Standing Committee Task Force on HIV/AIDS in Emergency Settings (IASC TF), 2003), 6-7, accessed 24 January 2005.
  2. "Fears of Rape Haunt Women in Sri Lankan Tsunami Relief Camps," Associated Press, 6 January 2005, accessed 23 January 2005.
  3. Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Director United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), "Responding to the Tsunami Tragedy: Women Must Be at the Heart of Rebuilding Shattered Communities," Statement published on 6 January 2005, accessed 24 January 2005.
  4. "Women, Children Sexually Abused After Tsunami," United Press International, 5 January 2005, accessed 20 January 2005.
  5. Heyzer, "Responding to the Tsunami."
  6. "Fears of Rape."
  7. "UNFPA Calls for Greater Security for Women Affected by Tsunami: Agency Says Fear of Violence can Inhibit Women from Caring for Families," United Nations, 5 January 2005, accessed 24 January 2005.
  8. Guidelines for HIV Prevention Interventions in Emergency Situations.
  9. United Nations, "Tsunami Disaster: UNFPA Appeals to Donors for $28 Million for Women and Youth," Press Release IHA/979 POP/913 published on 6 January 2005, accessed 24 January 2005.
  10. "UN Calls for Empowering Women to Address Tsunami’s Gender-Specific Needs," United Nations News Service, 14 January 1005, accessed 25 January 2005.
  11. Stuart Shepard, "U.N. Offers ‘Reproductive’ Aid to Tsunami Victims," Focus on the Family, 10 January 2005, accessed 20 January 2005.