Widows Of War
By Maryam Azwer
Yoganathan Rathika is twenty-six years old, and has a two year old daughter. She lives in a resettlement village in Manthai West, Mannar. Like a lot of women trying to resume normal life after the war, Rathika faces several hardships. But Rathika has one additional burden to bear. She is a widow.
There are presently 89,000 widows in the North and East, including many women like Rathika, who lost their husbands to the 30 year civil war.
They suffered through the war, lost their homes and their husbands. Even in peacetime, the suffering continues. The war widows have a myriad of problems to deal with. Many have been newly resettled, in remote areas, in half-built houses. They also have young children to raise. To add to this, they are also faced with social insecurity.
And all these problems, they have to deal with on their own.
Struggles and Stigma
“Life is very difficult. We don’t get a lot of help. Nobody really thinks of helping us,” said Rathika. Rathika goes out to find work as a labourer in order to support herself and her child. “I live in an area surrounded by forest. We have to cycle six kilometres to get to the nearest bus halt. My house is only half-built, and I am afraid to stay there alone,” she said.
“What we need most right now is the finances to complete our houses, but this is very difficult to obtain. Nobody is willing to give us a loan, because they aren’t sure how we will be able to pay it back,” explained Rathika.
Mahalakshmi Kurushanthan, of the Mannar Women’s Development Federation (MWDF) has been working with widows like Rathika, and has a clear insight into the problems faced by the multitude of war widows.
“Widows have to put up with a lot of social stigma. People watch them with a very critical eye. Even when they go out to work, people are always watching them,” said Mahalakshmi.
She went on to explain how a large number of women have been psychologically affected by their situation. Many women never found out what happened to their husbands, and were thus unable to carry out the final rites for them, as per their customs.
Meanwhile, Co-founder of the MWDF, Shreen Saroor, pointed out that the social stigma faced by widows also proved to be a barrier when they tried to make a living.
“Society as a whole looks down upon these women. We still have a system where widows are not treated the same as married women. They have to struggle a lot to find work. The problem is, who is going to give them market access? And if they want to go out and find work, who is going to look after their children? They need a set up where they can earn a decent living,” she said.
Most widows in the Eastern Province are under the age of 35, according to Ithayarani Sithravel of the Voluntary Service Organization for Women, in Trincomalee. “Because of their young age, they face several social issues, and find it difficult to go out and find work,” she said, adding that “They were used to depending on their husbands for a living.”
Those who have young children face the additional problems of having to provide them with food, and education. All these issues have been overlooked to a great extent, and these women do need assistance in dealing with their specific problems, said Ithayarani.
“The most important thing, is to teach them to be independent,” she said.
The Need For A Practical Solution
Shreen Saroor is of the opinion that although there are ongoing state efforts to assist these women, some of these efforts need to be more practical in addressing their issues.
“The Government apparently has a programme for them, but we don’t see it as something that can create a change in these women’s lives. It’s not just about giving them money. We need to make a structural change, because these women are vulnerable,” she pointed out.
According to Saroor, some of the state efforts involve recruiting these women into profit-making industries. “Many of us working in the field feel that there is some form of exploitation when they are recruited into profit making industries,” she said.
“The women of the North and East are used to engaging in activities like animal husbandry, poultry farming, home-gardening and such,” she said, adding that facilitating such livelihoods for widows could be more beneficial.
Apart from the social stigma and hardships, they are however faced with yet another problem : that of the Militarization of certain areas in the North and East. This has also imposed restrictions on these women’s lives, said Saroor. “In some places there is complete control over natural resources. Sometimes they can’t access the jungle, even to collect firewood,” she said.
Despite these obstacles, these women are trying to get by, doing whatever little they can to support themselves. K. Jeyanthi, 47, is from the same resettlement area as Rathika. “I lost my husband towards the end of the war, on the 22nd of April, 2009. I have two daughters. One of them is married, but the other one stays with me,” said Jeyanthi, who is also presently faced with the problem of a house only half-built. When asked how much her monthly income is, she said “For a month? That’s difficult to say. I packet mixture (a fried snack) and sell it whenever I can. It’s very difficult, making a living,” she said.