Disempowerment through disconnection

Kristin S. Scharffscher (The University of Tromsø, Tromsø, Norway)

Disaster Prevention and Management

ISSN: 0965-3562

Publication date: 22 February 2011



This paper aims to explore the relationship between local women's relief initiatives and international relief workers in Batticaloa, eastern Sri Lanka, during the post‐tsunami emergency.


Interviews with representatives from women's organizations in the tsunami‐affected town of Batticaloa, local and national nongovernment organizations (NGOs) based in Batticaloa, as well as international aid agencies are discussed in relation to theories on resilience, vulnerability, gender and humanitarianism.


Observing that women in a disaster‐affected area often represent important knowledge and resources, this paper documents how international relief workers failed to connect and cooperate with local women's organizations in post‐tsunami Batticaloa. It suggests that the reasons behind the disconnection can be linked to “us and them” undercurrents of international relief work – the lingering remnants of a colonial heritage. The disconnection may have led to a disempowerment of local capacities, flaws in the international relief activities, and reduced resilience among Batticaloan women in relation to the Sri Lankan civil war.

Research limitations/implications

Despite a growing volume of policies and guidelines on the importance of involving local capacities, there are inadequacies in the way international relief agencies operate vis‐à‐vis disaster‐affected communities, including women's established relief networks.

Practical implications

The paper points at some reasons why international relief organizations struggle to engage local women's resources in their emergency operations. It suggests that cultural, social, and linguistic barriers are among those that need to be addressed if relief workers are to provide effective and sustainable assistance to crisis‐affected communities.


Coupling theories of resilience, vulnerability, gender, and humanitarianism, this paper argues that women in disaster‐affected areas must be involved in international relief operations in a way that reflects their actual knowledge and resources. Presenting original interview material and documents collected during the first six months of the post‐tsunami operation, as well as through a follow‐up study in 2008, the paper points at international aid agencies' apparent inability to acknowledge local women's resilience and take their capacities into account. It also points at some of the ways in which this compromised the effectiveness and sustainability of international relief work in post‐tsunami Batticaloa.



Scharffscher, K. (2011), "Disempowerment through disconnection", Disaster Prevention and Management, Vol. 20 No. 1, pp. 63-81. https://doi.org/10.1108/09653561111111090

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