In Thailand: Tsunami Recovery & the Childless Mothers
May 9, 2007
Mother’s Day will soon be celebrated in the United States, but in Thailand we celebrate this holiday on the Queen’s birthday, in August. On this occasion, I take time to reflect on another important, albeit, very sad, day in Thailand.
On December 26, 2004, as I watched on television the killer waves striking the Andaman Coast on television, I emotionally and consciously wanted to help the victims in this vast tragedy. Within two weeks of the tsunami disaster I traveled to Phangna province with colleagues from the Women and the Constitution Network in an exploratory assessment for The Asia Foundation. We visited several camps filled with countless, exhausted survivors staying in thousands of tents. We talked with hundreds of people and observed the humanitarian assistance storming in.
Following this assessment trip, we decided to initiate a legal aid program, Tsunami Rights and Legal Aid Referral Center (T-LAC). Initial large-scale aid efforts focused on identifying bodies and providing temporary housing and medical care, but legal assistance was lacking. Our team also noticed that these emergency response programs lacked perspective on gender: there was little if no sex disaggregated data and women and girls in camps were prone to being sexually harassed. More importantly, most aid programs were not designed to be responsive to the thousands of single parents who lost their children.
We went door-to-door in tsunami-affected communities to listen to these mothers and fathers. In tears, they described the moment they fought back the strong wave to hold their babies before they slipped away from their hands, floating for a second and then disappearing in that cruel wave. They expressed their frustration that most aid and attention went to the children orphaned that day, but there was little mention of the parents left without their children.
Since the launch of T-LAC, many of the younger grieving mothers expressed their desires to become pregnant again. At least a dozen women I spoke with revealed that, like many Thai women who supported the government’s family planning campaign conducted over the past two decades, they had voluntarily undergone surgical contraception, a tubal ligation. Now childless, they regret the permanent nature of their decision and wish for the chance to have more babies. There is a possibility for fertile mothers to become pregnant again through medical procedures, such as reverse tubal ligation and artificial insemination, but this costs a minimum of approximately U.S. $600 per trial — a price poor mothers cannot afford.
Approximately 953 Thai people have been reported missing from the tsunami, and are now presumed dead. 78 Thai families lost at least two of their family members ” and among them, 39 families have lost two or more children. For fishermen, the average compensation was around U.S. $1,500 if they lost a small boat in the tsunami, and U.S. $5,000 for big boats. Almost 6,000 boats were damaged, amounting to approximately U.S. $ 20,000,000 of compensation. But so far, there has been no mention of reproductive rights program for families who lost their children.
One mother said to me, “I don’t have a reason to rebuild my life if there is no one to benefit from it. . . I wish for a miracle and would give up everything, even my own life, just to have my children alive.”
I am not different from those mothers who survived the disaster. I have two wonderful daughters. In their time of difficulty, they call and share with me, as is so in their time of success. I am happy to give them endless counseling, and support them when sick or in need of money. Can any mother like me sit idly by, not speaking out to others after hearing the heartfelt stories of mothers who lost their children in the tsunami? They are still struggling to heal their pain and they ask for a chance to get pregnant one more time.
On Mother’s Day, I celebrate my daughters and my mother, and I reaffirm my advocacy for the childless mothers I meet through my work. I have encouraged them to unite together to form a support group, as well as lobby the government to provide assistance for these medical procedures. These mothers cannot replace their children lost in the tsunami, but they are ready for a fresh start.
Ruengrawee Ketphol is a Senior Program Coordinator at The Asia Foundation’s office in Bangkok.
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