Surprised? Ambika (some names in this story have been changed) - the sole
survivor of a family that perished in the December 2004 tsunami disaster - of
course claims she is 18 years of age, while officials here explain the larger
story behind the bizarre 'tsunami marriage'.
The tsunami, which killed nearly 10,000 people in Tamil Nadu, orphaned scores
of young men and women. Since the government barred adoptions, relatives of the
young women survivors decided to take them in using 'marriage' as a cover.
In the process, however, even 13-year-olds and 14-year-olds have got 'married'.
They may have gained a family in the process, but other forms of trauma are
just beginning to unfold.
Ambika is just one of the 112 women in Nagapattinam district who have entered
into what is popularly known in these parts as 'tsunami marriage'.
'Much too often we now have elderly uncles coming forward to shelter the
teenagers by offering marriage. These marriages are called tsunami marriage,'
explained D. Koteeswara Rao, tsunami project coordinator for the Schizophrenia
Research Foundation (SCARF).
The marriages are not legal because a woman cannot marry under the age of 18.
But NGOs say that the young women invariably claim they are adults. And as they
are mostly 'marrying' into relatives, the authorities are turning a blind eye.
SCARF does not give out the names of women involved in 'tsunami marriages' for
reasons of privacy.
'One day Ambika came to me and asked with disgust if her life would be like
this for ever,' Rao said, referring to the young woman's complaint about the
lack of sex drive of her husband. 'I had no answer.'
Rao went on: 'Even then 13-year-olds and 14-year-olds get married to their
The men such women are 'marrying' have wives and the latter give their consent
to such relationships. Some activists say these families only have an eye on
the monetary compensations the orphans may have got from the government.
SCARF has been engaged in trauma care in villages along Tamil Nadu's winding
coast. The disaster left nearly 200,000 people without homes, relatives or even
Social Need Education and Human Awareness (SNEHA), an NGO, has recorded 112
tsunami marriages from communities in 20 villages in Nagapattinam, the district
worst affected by the tsunami.
The young victims act like housekeepers. 'We cannot stop it because the
government rules say that if relatives come forward to take in victims, we must
let them,' said a member of an NGO.
There is no doubt that the scars of the tsunami linger on.
'More than 50 percent of the households in the tsunami-hit districts are
women-headed households', SNEHA director Jesu Rethnam told IANS.
Many households are also headed by children, especially girls, often as young
In one case, a 15-year-old girl was placed in a government shelter after her
mother died in the tsunami.
She fears that some family might trap her and take away all the compensation
she and her siblings are entitled to.
There are other problems too.
In Kilinjalmedu village, a mechanised boat was given to a female tsunami
victim. The village panchayat was upset. 'What will a woman do with a boat?'
someone asked, demanding that it be turned over to the panchayat.
In another village, a woman was provided an auto-rickshaw. Again, the village
authorities wanted to snatch it away.
In both cases, the donors argued that the beneficiary could hire out the
boat/vehicle to young men to ply.
In Chinnankudi village, women survivors were given Rs.4,000 as immediate
compensation. That too led to unexpected headaches.
'Women's needs are less than men's. What will women do with so much money?' was
the reaction of the panchayat. So, half of it was taken away from the women.
SCARF is counselling 48 cases of extreme trauma in children. 'Two girls in
Nagoor, two in Sellur, one in Samanthanpettai. Two cannot talk even a year
after the tragedy and one keeps attempting suicide,' said a SCARF activist.
In Cuddalore district, a woman saved herself by clinging on to a tree but the
huge waves stripped her of her clothing. Till today, she hangs her head down as
she walks. She just cannot overcome the humiliation.
Indo-Asian News Service