Taking the plunge

Sports as a way of empowering women in a tsunami affected area

By Archana Kapoor Chennai
What is the big deal about teaching swimming to women living in the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu? Plenty, if we bear in mind that that the patriarchal society that they live in just refuses women to learn how to swim even when it means threatening their very survival. Tsunami that struck the coast of Tamil Nadu in December 2004 killed more women then men and brought to the fore how age old superstitions and customs could threaten coastal communities.

This trend was not confined to India alone. Indonesia, Thailand all exhibited a similar trend. This was a staggering discovery for international aid agencies involved in rehabilitation of Tsunami victims. A study conducted by Oxfam clearly indicated that in some villages more than 80 per cent of those who died were women. The reason? They did not know how to swim or save their lives by climbing on to roofs or trees or hold on to something and move to safe areas.

A Vienna based Austrian voluntary agency, Women without Borders (WwB) decided to initiate a programme that would prepare women for similar water-related catastrophes. They decided to teach women of different ages to swim.
On February 2, women living in the coastal villages of Tamil Nadu and scores of young girls living in the fishing hamlets of the capital city of Chennai, decided to shed their inhibitions and participate in this unique programme.

It was not really easy to get this programme off the ground. People at different positions in the government scoffed at such a suggestion that women needed to be taught how to swim. "What is the purpose of doing it? When Tsunami hits, no one can swim". Others were more charitable. "It is a good idea, but …" No one really said, "Why not!"

The founder of Women without Borders, Dr Edit Schlaffer, and her handful of friends and colleagues were not deterred by this scepticism and saw in imparting of swimming lessons a means to empower women. Sports, Dr Schlaffer thought, could help in building self-esteem and strength. It could also regain women's trust in water, which they had lost after the cataclysmic happening a year ago. Close interactions with the community revealed that most of the women felt the need for learning how to swim.

Their memory of the tsunami helped them to fight the age-old custom of staying away from water. That was the first victory in the process to bring the women to a pool that was 5-30 kilometers away from their villages. These women had to take three hours out of their packed schedules. Used to wearing saris how would these women shake off their cultural and social inhibitions and don the swimming costumes, albeit specially designed, that would expose their skin?
It was a challenge that had to be met.

On the first day out of the 30 women who came to the swimming pool at Mammallapuram only five agreed to wear the swimming costumes and that too after they were wrapped from top to bottom with their dupattas. Overnight T-shirts and track pants were acquired and the number of women in the pool steadily increased.
Chennai was easy. Over 50 young girls with their enthusiastic parents in tow were at the Anna swimming pool waiting to learn to swim. In a short period of seven days 90 per cent of the students had learnt how to swim. "The programme is for a very short period. I think my daughter has the potential of becoming a champion. Can you not extend this training," requested Laxmi's father. "We normally take 12 to 15 days to teach the beginners to swim, but you have done it in seven days. This is very creditable," said Radhika a swimming coach in a neighbouring school.

The effort of WwB to carry out this effective programme with the support from the Austrian sports ministry and Tamil Nadu sports directorate has been rewarded by the realisation in both the countries that such an initiative should be replicated in other parts of the state and in other countries too.

It has been a learning experience for WwB which has realised that women's empowerment does not only come from learning a new skill, but also in having fun, in togetherness and in understanding one's own body.