To most people, drowning is a tragic accident that doesn’t get much attention unless a ship sinks or a catastrophic storm hits. But to health experts, it’s a silent or hidden epidemic, the third-leading cause of unintentional injury deaths. The World Health Organization (WHO) says drowning claims 372,000 lives every year, and researchers say inconsistencies in data collection mean the real figure could be up to four or five times higher.
Most of those deaths – 90 percent – occur in low- and middle-income countries. And although overall more men die of drowning than women, those numbers flip when natural disaster strikes. In the Bangladesh cyclone of 1991, five times more women died by drowning than men, according to Oxfam. The statistics were similar for the Sri Lanka tsunami in December 2004.
Why are women so vulnerable to drowning during natural disasters? While there is little empirical data on gender differences in swimming ability, some experts say it’s simply that women in many parts of the world never learn to swim. According to RNLI, a British charity focused on lifeboat search and rescue, “unequal access or social prejudice against women learning to swim drastically reduces female survival opportunities in flooding and other water-related disasters.”
Social norms prevent women from taking lessons – often because of the belief that they shouldn’t be seen in bathing suits – while the traditional caretaker role means women have no time to learn to swim and, during crises, they prioritize saving their children and elderly relatives over themselves.
To help bring down drowning numbers, health bodies like WHO advocate giving more children access to swimming lessons. But one British woman discovered that focusing on gender, not age, could also make a dramatic difference.
As she sat in front of her TV watching the devastation of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, swimming instructor Christina Fonfe decided she had to do something. According to Oxfam, the tsunami drowned a quarter of a million people. Over 35,000 people died in Sri Lanka alone, and 80 percent of those who drowned were women and children. Fonfe didn’t know exactly how she could help, but she packed her bags and left for Sri Lanka in February 2005.
After she arrived, Fonfe quickly figured out that by teaching basic swimming skills, she could help save lives: Today, three people a day drown in Sri Lanka’s waterways. While she started with lessons for kids, she noticed that no teenage girls were participating because it was considered unacceptable for men to see them wearing bathing suits. But she figured that if children were going to be safe in water, they needed to be supervised by their mothers. That meant the women would need to know how to swim. So Fonfe decided to teach them.
It wasn’t easy. “Convincing the male heads of households to let the teenage girls participate took more time than actually teaching them to swim did,” she says.
Eventually, she launched the Sri Lanka Women’s Swimming Project to teach water safety and swimming to over 5,000 girls and women ranging in age from 13 to 72. The project runs on a budget of around $2,000 a year with an above-ground pool donated by the British High Commissioner.
Some of Fonfe’s students have gone on to earn internationally recognized swimming certifications and become instructors. And for some, the project has done more than teach them to swim – it’s taught them to soar. Through their lessons, girls have gained the confidence to attend university and find jobs abroad.
With climate change bringing more frequent, and more powerful, extreme weather events (including flooding), drowning is an ever-growing threat. Floods are the most common and widespread of weather-related natural disasters, and they are the leading cause of natural disaster mortalities worldwide. According to the WHO, 75 percent of deaths during floods are due to drowning.
To prevent drowning deaths, WHO guidance calls for a range of actions, including encouraging governments to develop national action plans and enact legislation to regulate shipping and ferry operations; training people in safe rescue and resuscitation; and increasing public awareness, especially around children, who are particularly vulnerable to drowning: In the Western Pacific region, children aged 5 to 14 years die more frequently from drowning than from any other cause.
Projects like Fonfe’s that focus not only on children but also women may be key to addressing these preventable deaths. “Swimming is not a luxury; it’s a life skill,” Fonfe says.
One that gets passed on from mother to child. “As anticipated, mothers who can swim are much more likely to have children who can swim,” say University of Colorado researchers.
Fonfe is now trying to keep her Sri Lanka program afloat as she turns her attention to other projects. “I’ve done what I can in Sri Lanka, and I’ve left swimming teachers in place,” she says. But Sri Lankans outside the main cities don’t have much money to contribute toward swimming lessons. And there’s the risk that the situation is “slipping backwards” as memory of the tsunami fades and people feel less urgency to learn to swim.
After her success in Sri Lanka, Fonfe is looking for ways to help at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where 80,000 Syrians live in often dire conditions. “When [UK Prime Minister] David Cameron visited the camp in September 2015, he asked children what they needed. One little boy responded a swimming pool,” Fonfe says. “Zaatari must be a miserable existence for a child. There would be huge benefits to having a swimming pool there – they could learn to swim.”
This version of the story corrects an earlier version which stated that Fonfe’s project runs on $2,000 a month. In fact, the amount is $2,000 a year.