International Widows’ Day fell on June 23
If one recalls Deepa Mehtha’s 2005 film ‘Water’ which examined the troubles of a group of widows forced to be confined at a temple in the holy city of Varanasi, it is easy to take an example of how widows were marginalized in the Asian cultural setting sometime back. Today, in Sri Lanka, we still tend to look down upon widows, condemning them although they are not treated as viciously as in ‘Water’, forcing them to be confined at home or a temple.
It’s enough struggle for a widow to deal with the loss of their better half. Yet, we still put them in a position where they lose their dignity as well along with the husband. This may not be significantly visible in the urban areas of the country, but the story is different in a rural setting. They still seem to suffer from social stigma.
It’s difficult to understand why a man who loses his wife is not burdened by social stigma similar to woman who loses her husband. They do not seem to have an issue in continuing with their daily routine or even getting remarried. However, being stigmatized doesn’t mean that the women too, if widowed at a young age, don’t look forward to reenter a family life. “We are ready to get married and live a normal life again if the men are also ready,” says the Viluthu organization representative, a woman, who spoke on conditions of anonymity. “Situation is much better in Northern Province now that a widow has the liberty to remarry if she wishes to. But, there is lot of requirements to be fulfilled before this can happen,” she further said.
However, gradual change can be seen in society and today, children themselves ask their widowed mothers to bless them at their weddings
“Remarriage is accepted,” Viluthu spokesperson reiterated, but added that usually dowry is an issue. She also said that society understands a woman’s needs, but usually men don’t and instead look at the dowry aspect of the marriage.
If a woman already has a child, she has to consider her children when remarrying. Further, the chances of men who marry widows or divorcees being widowers are extremely high. While there are many social barriers when a single mother considers remarriage, a single father could easily remarry, the Viluthu spokesperson said.
She further explained that for a widow it’s difficult to find another man who is willing to marry her. The ones who come for them also seem to have selfish motives hidden behind their proposals, one such example being a widower looking for a partner just because he wants someone to take care of his children.
While widows across Sri Lanka face this situation, it’s more important to focus on widows in Northern Province due to the higher rate of widows in the area. A consequence of an armed conflict that usually goes unspoken about is the families missing a valuable member. In a country where men are often the breadwinners of the family, it is important to examine how a family suffers when the breadwinner is killed or goes missing. This is worsened due to a culture where widows are in general discriminated against.
Viluthu is a center for human resource development in Thirunelveli North, Jaffna and aims at promoting a culture of participatory democracy. The organization makes a special effort to empower women, especially widows, divorcees and spinsters. The center organizes awareness programs for widows and single women and also carries out vocational training programs for them. Further, while Viluthu doesn’t offer counseling for women, the center directs women in need of counseling to NGOs and counseling centers.
The people behind Viluthu have been at work since 2005. In 2012, Amara Association was formed with the help of Viluthu, but now functions independently from Viluthu. Viluthu also works with other women’s rights organizations to ensure the strengthening of women.
According to superstitious beliefs, widows are considered a bad omen. Society shuns widows and it is surprising that after an armed conflict that resulted in many deaths and thus, many widows, social beliefs continue to shun widows and discriminate against them.
The problems faced by widows, divorcees and spinsters are mainly cultural and financial. For instance, spokesperson of Viluthu explained, widows are now being given a higher place than they were once given in society. The spokesperson said, “Some women wear the pottu even if their husbands are no longer with them, and this is often at the insistence of their children.”
Another example of how widows are seen as a bad omen and how the situation is slowly changing is their presence at weddings. While there are instances when widows aren’t even allowed to attend weddings or any other auspicious occasion, even if they are allowed to, they are given a background role and aren’t thought to be suitable to bless those involved. However, gradual change can be seen in society and today, children themselves ask their widowed mothers to bless them at their weddings.
The future of widows is bleak, said Viluthu spokesperson. She explained that for this reason, Viluthu is working on a policy change that would benefit women. For instance, the legal system often works against females and the spokesperson explained that when a female goes to court expecting compensation for being abandoned by her husband, the courts require the husband’s presence.
They also have fewer job opportunities and often settle with odd jobs where they are paid 400 rupees for a day’s work. Females also face issues when seeking self-employment because they have no capital to invest in their business. “Even if there is interest, they have no skills and even if they had skills, they don’t receive necessary training,” the spokesperson said.
Viluthu spokesperson also explained that if a female can survive on her own, she can live without a man, but when she can’t survive, she has to depend on a male, whether its father, brother or husband.
While it is important to speak about the financial and cultural pressures on widows and divorcees and their ability to live without depending on males, it is also necessary to look at the options a widow or divorcee has when it comes to another marriage.
A chain effect that seriously and tightly dictates the life of widows and divorcees begins with the ineligibility to a house. Due to houses being given to larger families, those of two or three members find it difficult to gain ownership of a house. This leads to security concerns. In turn, the children of widows and divorcees face difficulties of gaining admission to school, and the women cannot afford to educate their children. The financial situation of such females leads to nutritional issues and affects their health too.
Thus it seems like simply addressing a few basic issues could improve the lives of widows and divorcees greatly. However, Viluthu is also aware of the need and importance for women to stand up for themselves and with the empowerment they receive, widows, divorcees and spinsters are able to do exactly that. The spokesperson spoke in length of the importance of women having the confidence to not depend on various organizations to ensure their rights aren’t breeched. This is extremely important in a society where females are usually forced to be dependent on males.
While many would have remained unaware of it, International Widows’ Day fell on June 23. Viluthu and Amara organizations held a commemoration in the Northern Province to further empower widows and spread awareness about their situation.
“If a single female speaks about her situation, it might be hard to make a change in society. However, if many women speak out aloud, it will be possible,” Viluthu spokesperson added. She explained that if the entire country, and not just those of the Northern Province, spoke about the issues faced by widows and divorcees, it would be easier to take up the issues with the relevant authorities and ensure widows and divorcees face no discrimination whatsoever.
A tale of sharing struggles
Story of Idhayaraj Shyla, Head of Tharaka Center for Widows
“My husband was shot when he went out for fishing in 1996, when I was 18. My daughter was one year old at the time and I had a very tough time to cope with such a situation. I managed to look after myself, my daughter, and my mother by rolling tobacco and doing odd jobs.
I went through a lot of problems psychologically due to the fact that I was very young and had an infant to look after. I had to sacrifice a lot of things in life in order to look after my child and to ensure that she received a good education.
It was difficult to cope with the situation because my daughter used to constantly ask where her father was. I could see that she was affected, especially when she saw both parents of other children dropping them at school and attending parent-teacher meetings. When she was very young, I had to lie to her that her father was somewhere else.
I had no help whatsoever from outside until 2002, the year I got together with a few others who had lost their husbands and formed this group. There are around 100 members in our society at the moment and we work towards empowering each other through various activities. We meet every week and discuss issues. We also save money so that we can help our children study. I have somehow managed to educate my child. She has completed her advanced level examinations and is doing a course.
When we started the association for widows, we did not receive support from the people. In fact they discouraged us simply because we were widows. We had no say in anything and we were not invited or called for any occasion. But we wanted to prove them wrong and have succeeded in doing so. The very people who discouraged us have begun to accept us and have congratulated us on our achievements.
We also keep in touch with widows in Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu. We have shared our struggles and experiences with them and pledged our support in their endeavors. What is more important is that through these organizations, we have a sense of acceptance. In addition to that, being with those who faced the same ordeal in life enables us to relate to their problems therefore stand by each other.”