chapter  5
Dreaming of dowry: post- tsunami housing strategies in eastern
Pages 19

The east coast of the island was the region hardest hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (Fig. 5.1). After the initial relief phase was over, and survivors had been provided with temporary shelter of one kind or another, attention was directed to the long-term challenge of constructing new permanent dwellings for those families who had lost everything. Many were prohibited from rebuilding on their original beachfront house sites because they fell within the government-designated “buffer zones,” varying in width from 200 meters to 65 meters depending on the location. The fact that the dimensions of the buffer zone were repeatedly altered added an element of anxiety and confusion that has been widely noted (Shanmugaratnam 2005; Hyndman 2007; Ruwanpura 2008b; Silva 2009; Boano 2009). Along the eastern coastline of the island, where many Tamil, Muslim, and Portuguese Burgher communities live in a narrow belt of land close to the sea, the buffer zone rule immediately erased many generations of women’s property in the form of matrilocal dowry houses passed down from mothers to daughters at marriage (McGilvray 1989, 2006, 2008). In the haste and confusion associated with the provision of temporary shelter, and as construction programs for permanent housing projects were initially implemented, the fact that mothers, wives, and daughters had traditionally held sole title – or joint title with their husbands – to domestic dwellings in Tamil and Muslim communities was largely overlooked by government and foreign NGO relief agencies, who never imagined that women might legally have been the primary or joint property holders. In tsunami housing programs island-wide, it was widely assumed that the “head of household” and the “owner” of a damaged dwelling would be the same (male) person – typically a father, a husband, or a son. The comments of a donor organization official in 2005-2006 candidly acknowledged this cultural myopia (quoted in Ruwanpura 2008b): “… at the time of handing over the new house, a legal title is done for each block of land and house. This is usually in the man’s name … We didn’t think about instances where the house before belonged to women.”