Why women need to be at the heart of disaster response: Lessons from Odisha Super Cyclone – ActionAid India
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Why women need to be at the heart of disaster response: Lessons from Odisha Super Cyclone

Author: Debabrat Patra | Aditi Roy
Posted on: Monday, 24th July 2023
Women are not only the most affected during and after disasters but also often act as first responders
The approaching 25th anniversary of the 1999 Super Cyclone in Odisha serves as a reminder of the devastating impact it had on the region.
With over 10,000 lives lost, the cyclone that hit Odisha on October 29, 1999, resulted in widespread socio-ecological and economic destruction. Women, children, older individuals and persons with disabilities were among those who suffered the most, as they lost their loved ones in the disaster.
Tragically, reports of child and women trafficking emerged after the cyclone, following the distribution of death compensation to the affected families. The compensation amount at that time was Rs 75,000 per person, which was significant.
Many of the widows who lost their spouses remarried. Unfortunately, many subsequently faced gender-based violence from their husbands, who sought control over the compensation and the victims’ property.
In response to the alarming situation faced by widows, destitute orphans, children, the elderly and persons with disabilities, a unique initiative called Mamta Gruha, meaning “abode of love and affection,” was established under the Sneha Abhiyaan project. This initiative was developed through collaboration between the Centre, the Odisha government, UNICEF, the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, ActionAid, Nature’s Club and other local non-profits.
Mamta Gruha provided safe spaces where these vulnerable groups could receive comprehensive care and protection. The primary focus was on addressing their essential needs, including food, nutrition and healthcare (including medical and psychosocial support) and ensuring their overall well-being. Community volunteers played a crucial role in assisting these individuals and helping them access government-announced compensations.
The Mamta Gruha initiative has been recognised as a best practice in the field of disaster risk reduction and management. It has been featured in the Prayas booklet published by the non-profit Inter-Agency Group and the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority.
During the follow-up with women who stayed in Mamta Gruha after the 1999 Super Cyclone, it was discovered that in many cases, the compensation received by the women was misappropriated by their sons or other relatives, leaving them in a state of misery. One such example is Basanti Nayak, an 80-year-old resident of Kankan, Jagatsingpur.
In the devastating cyclone, Nayak tragically lost 11 family members, including her husband, son and grandchildren. She received death compensation for all her family members and livelihood support of Rs 24,000 from ActionAid.
However, her elder son unlawfully took control of all the land and money meant for her. As a result, she is currently engaged in a civil case to fight for her rights. Nayak now relies on a meagre monthly pension of Rs 500 for her sustenance. Her situation highlights the challenges faced by these women even after receiving compensation, as their family members may take advantage of the funds, leading to further hardship and vulnerability.
Sita Maity, a 42-year-old resident of Kankan, Jagatsinghpur, shared her experience after surviving the Super Cyclone. She mentioned that it took seven days for her to be rescued. According to Sita and other women in Jagatsinghpur, two significant measures are undertaken during cyclones to support women: Shifting pregnant women to nearby hospitals and distributing free sanitary pads.
However, they expressed a lack of awareness regarding the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) norms and the compensation for the loss of lives and livelihoods.
The women in the community also face challenges, such as regular seawater intrusion in their fields, resulting in crop loss and damage to agricultural areas during cyclones. Unfortunately, they do not receive compensation for these losses. Additionally, the compensation provided for damaged houses, which is Rs 3,200 even for complete destruction, is inadequate for rebuilding Kutcha houses.
There is a pressing need for special care and attention to be given to women and children in disaster situations. Such emergencies often lead to an increase in cases of elopement and teenage pregnancies. The medical centre in Erasama, located 10 km from Jagatsingpur, lacks the capacity to provide psychosocial care and no emergency medical support is available at the shelter. Sita also mentioned that the cyclone shelter is in need of repairs.
While menstruating women receive free sanitary napkins provided by Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) workers, cultural beliefs often prevent menstruating girls or women from being brought to the cyclone shelter. This highlights the importance of addressing cultural norms and ensuring that all women, regardless of their menstrual status, have access to safe shelter and support during cyclones.
Considering the ongoing progress in disaster response in Odisha and other states, it is crucial to approach the situation of women, children and other vulnerable groups differently and develop a manual to address women’s protection issues during disasters. Women are not only the most affected during and after disasters but also often act as first responders.
Even after 25 years, the scars of the Super Cyclone are still evident in Jagatsingpur. Therefore, it is essential to leverage the agency and leadership of women to bring about the desired changes.
Self-Help Groups in the village can be entrusted with managing cyclone shelters, including the distribution of cooked food. These women leaders can also create safe spaces within existing cyclone shelters, drawing from the experience of initiatives like Sneha Abhiyaan. In case there is a need for new cyclone shelters due to the rising population, it is important to allocate designated spaces for women, children and other vulnerable groups.
Frontline workers such as ASHAs and women leaders should receive training in first aid, shelter management, rescue operations, government regulations concerning trafficking and compensation norms under SDRF. As the scale of the disaster increases, the necessity of creating safe spaces like Mamta Gruhas becomes even more crucial. These safe spaces would provide comprehensive care for women, children and other vulnerable sections of society.
To build resilience within affected communities, it is essential to focus on long-term rehabilitation. This can be achieved through the provision of protective shelters, psychosocial counselling and alternative livelihood opportunities. The leadership of women collectives plays a vital role in this process. Additionally, linking the community to their entitled benefits through convergence with the government is crucial for the care and protection of women, children, the elderly and persons with disabilities.
By adopting these measures and prioritising the needs and empowerment of women and vulnerable groups, we can work towards building resilient communities that are better prepared to face future disasters and mitigate their impact on the most marginalised sections of society.
Disclaimer: The article was originally published on DowntoEarth. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of ActionAid Association.