TAMIL NADU, India — “The sea was like boiling milk. But after the first wave, it was like boiling milk with rice in it, from the sediment the sea churned up,” said the man from the fishing community of Nalla Thanni Odai in North Chennai, India.

Over 8,400 people perished here in the days following the Dec. 26 tsunami.

Three weeks after the tsunami hit, I visited relief camps and localities in the midst of damage assessment and reconstruction with a national women’s organization, the All India Democratic Women’s Association. AIDWA has over 450,000 members in the state of Tamil Nadu alone, so their active involvement in reconstruction work after the tsunami was immediate and coordinated across the coastal region of the state.

The central office of AIDWA arranged for me to join members from their North Chennai group in their relief work on Jan. 15, the last day of Pongal, a harvest festival in Tamil Nadu. During Pongal, rice is boiled in milk until it overflows to symbolize hopes for a year of plenty.

Persisting trauma

Another villager said, “We are not afraid of storms, we have been out fishing in all kinds of weather. But now even the smallest wave wakes us up and disturbs our sleep. We think another tsunami is coming.”

These stories of trauma, loss and dispossession fill the media. People, organizations and nations around the world have found ways to join in the relief effort, by giving time, money and resources towards aid and reconstruction. But the media is also filled with stories of damages that continue to be wrought on displaced people: rapes of women in relief camps in Sri Lanka, dispossession of property in Indonesia, post-traumatic stress, and aid never reaching people most in need.

Unfair distribution of aid

This last issue is usually framed as a problem of “corruption” by greedy government officials or networks of people, rather than as a problem of the unfair distribution of aid. Corruption is rarely if ever discussed as an issue with specific consequences for women.

Only three days before I met with women in Tamil Nadu, the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations and the Indonesian government held a daylong seminar on corruption in Aceh, Indonesia, one of the areas most devastated by the tsunami. Rehabilitation and reconstruction aid, participants said, more than emergency relief, are particularly vulnerable to corruption.

But even with these nuances, “corruption” obscures as it minimizes the problem of people’s exclusion from relief programs. “Corruption” also frames the potential solutions as top-down and bureaucratic, rather than led by the people most affected by the lack of resources.

Women face special challenges

“Distribution is a real problem,” U. Vasuki, the general secretary of AIDWA in Tamil Nadu, told me bluntly before we left AIDWA’s office in central Chennai. “In the villages and areas where we [AIDWA members] concentrate our relief work, we are trying to bring the government relief in an orderly way to reach everyone.”

That afternoon we experienced the inequities that mark poor women’s lives, even without a tragedy like this one. We heard about the protest over government relief distribution after meeting women from three fishing communities. In these three communities of North Chennai, we discussed women’s demand that the national bank forgive their self-help loans. In another area, we learned about the fight for government aid to reconstruct a women-run dried fish business.

Nearby, we witnessed the recent fire that demolished their damaged homes, and some speculated whether the fire was an attempt by the government to relocate the inhabitants for good and appropriate the land to build a bridge. While these communities had not lost lives, everyone faced extensive property damage and loss.

Their demands for compensation and relief from the government mirrored these devastations. Outside of the fish market, even those boat owners with working boats in the harbor were refusing to take their boats into the sea. They struck in solidarity with boat owners whose damaged boats were not insured through the government insurance program. They argued that the government should compensate even those people who had not paid the insurance premium, since for the last year diesel prices had risen so steeply that many boat owners could not meet both the costs of fuel and insurance.

Confronting a local official

We began to move toward an adjacent locality called Didirnagar, a neighborhood that lost many lives as well as homes and livelihood. As we walked, North Chennai AIDWA members Mohanasudari, Mary, Saroja and Lakshmi, who all wore AIDWA badges on their saris, showed me a government coupon for a “second phase” of relief in RK Nagar, a locality five minutes north of the fish market.

The coupon, redeemable for a large vessel to store drinking water and other household goods, was not going to women from the locality, but reportedly to members of the ruling government party, AIADMK, in areas that were not affected by the tsunami. Even those women who had a relief coupon found it was not being honored. Women from RK Nagar planned an action that day at the local AIADMK party secretary’s office where relief distribution was coordinated. The women would confront the local party secretary about his mismanagement and favoritism.

We reached the street outside the party secretary’s office. Many women sat on the road blocking traffic, a “road roko,” while uniformed police milled around. Since AIDWA had been active in the locality since the tsunami struck, women staging the protest gathered around us to explain their grievances.

“When we went to Nagalingam [the local AIADMK secretary], we asked him why he did not give us our relief goods, and why they were going to AIADMK members instead. He said, ‘Because I’m having sex with them. If you people come to me every day, keep your legs open, then I will dump the materials.’”

Vasuki listened to the anger, hurt and frustration of the women and began to speak with the police and the local officials about Nagalingam’s aggressive sexual slurs against the women and his refusal to distribute aid equitably. The voices of the men rose with a blind fury, while Vasuki remained calm and persistent. Other groups of women (members of AIADMK) who had received government relief joined the fray of accusations and denials.

The confrontation escalates

Buses and cars began to line up on both sides of the women blockading the road, and the police demanded that the women rise and the crowd move. They warned the women they could be arrested for disturbing the peace, but the women did not relent. They wanted Nagalingam to apologize for his sexualized verbal assault against them.

The assistant police commissioner urged the buses forward to drive over us as we blocked the street. The women did not move, but continued to demand an apology. “Let them fight each other!” he said of the angry debates surging through the crowd. The assistant commissioner did little, however, when the Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) entered the crowd with his supporters. As the hefty men pushed, yelled obscenities and threatened the protesting women, the police merely watched.

The MLA had no apologies for the local secretary’s words or his actions, but blamed AIDWA for inciting the crowd. He left with vague promises to investigate what happened.

After the MLA left, many women began to disperse. AIDWA lodged a complaint with the deputy commissioner of police against Nagalingam and the assistant police commissioner. When they filed the complaint, the deputy commissioner offered to apologize for police rudeness, but did not mention restitution of relief materials for the women from RK Nagar.

A commitment to reach everyone

AIDWA filed the case and the struggle continues for fair distribution of materials, loans, future livelihood means, and funds. Vasuki characterized the relief work of AIDWA as only in part a role of collecting and distributing aid, rebuilding people’s communities and trades for survival, and those many other important tasks reported by the media. She had early described their central mission, “to bring the government relief in an orderly way to reach everyone.”

The organization’s support for women’s struggles to rightfully receive government relief, not on the basis of “benevolence” of the state but as a matter of their rights to livelihood, as in the case of RK Nagar, is critical to that goal.

To call the women’s fight for aid in RK Nagar simply a fight against “corruption” shifts the systemic problem of unequal distribution of resources to one of regional government mismanagement or individual failing. Natural disasters, like the tsunami, make these inequities particularly visible, since victims have such palpable and immediate needs for aid. But the unequal distribution of wealth and resources transcends the sudden devastation of an earthquake.

Different concepts of accountability

Our answers to corruption usually require greater policing and monitoring of relief donations and largely ignore these structural inequities. “Accountability” in this framework means solutions like greater “transparency” of funds dispersal, and “tracking” of government, UN and aid agency spending. PricewaterhouseCoopers, the U.S.-based accounting firm, is presently working with the UN to create an Internet-based tracking system for relief funds, so donors can rest assured their money is well-spent.

Notably, in this discussion, accountability does not refer to ensuring the government’s increased accountability to the citizens they represent, but to the donors who give them aid. Corruption does not define the problems for women and their families in RK Nagar; instead discriminatory and unfair distribution of resources more accurately describes their struggle. The local party secretary and the area’s MLA are guilty of misrepresenting their constituents when they divert aid to their supporters, away from families in need.

In contrast to efforts to streamline surveillance of relief funds from above, groups like AIDWA organize for government accountability to the public, and work to make women’s demands heard. From extensive discussions with women in villages across the coastline of Tamil Nadu, AIDWA has framed a list of demands.

AIDWA’s special demands

The first demand regards distribution: “Relief materials should be distributed in a fair manner.” In this context, special attention is to be given to women’s issues. AIDWA demands that relief programs should recognize those subsidiary fishing industries with large numbers of women workers, such as collecting shells, fish trading and fish selling. They also support relief for women’s agricultural livelihood, such as rice paddies destroyed by seawater flooding. AIDWA also pressures the government to write off self-help loans, often given to women.

Their charter of demands suggests better policies around the form of relief given; whenever possible, relief in kind, rather than money, should be distributed. When money is distributed, AIDWA argues, women in a family should be the recipients of the funds. In addition, AIDWA voiced women’s demand to close the state’s government-run liquor shops for one month to ensure relief money is not spent on alcohol. Whether organizing in a time of relative scarcity or plenty, AIDWA, like many other groups who envision better futures, supports a more just distribution of our resources. Whether working to alleviate sudden devastation or to enable daily survival, AIDWA relies on building the same strength, the collective power of women to win their equality.

Elisabeth Armstrong teaches women’s studies at Smith College. She is working on a book about AIDWA.