Stigma, Harassment Add to War Widows' Burdens
COLOMBO, Nov 4 (IPS) - Losing their husbands in Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict has been difficult enough for the thousands of war widows here, but putting back the pieces of their lives has not been any easier.
Social stigma, loneliness, economic difficulties, pressure from the
family and sexual harassment often combine to make life for the estimated 4,000 widows doubly difficult.
Often, widows in this South Asian island nation are perceived as flighty
and agreeable to getting into sexual relationships.
They are also viewed in terms of their 'value' for their children --
society often frowns on their getting remarried since they are expected to
look after them - and are rarely are thought of in terms of their human needs.
Yet many widows are in the 22 to 35 age group, which means that they are in the prime of their lives and yet do not always feel they have real
options in life.
There is in place a system of state financial assistance, but it is also
often problematic because it has often put widows who collect their pension at risk of harassment from military personnel.
''I have been informed by senior army officers themselves how these
women are harassed by other officers who tell them that anything could be
done 'if they are nice (to the officers),'' says Nimalka Fernando, an
activist working on women's issues.
Harry Goonetilleke, a retired air force commander who now heads a state
family counselling service, adds that inadequate attention is being given
to war widows' real needs.
''They are young and there is a humane problem we need to take into
account. They need protection, and what of their own sexual or biological
needs?'' he asks.
The state assistance system - which provides 80 million rupees (845,665
dollars) a month for the war widows -- also makes remarrying difficult
because the widows lose the right to these benefits if they do so.
Goonetilleke in fact is leading a campaign to urge the Sri Lankan
government to provide war widows half the pension they get even after they remarry.
War widows get the same salary received by their husbands at the time of
death or their being listed as missing in action, and thereafter a pension
at the time their spouse reaches retirement age.
In interviews, the women say they are reluctant to marry again as they
would have to forego the salary and pension and whatever independence they have.
Revonne Hewage's soldier husband died just before the current ceasefire
-- between government troops and rebels seeking a homeland for minority
Tamils -- was announced about two years ago.
She had been married for three years and has a girl of five. ''It is
very difficult (to live on your own),'' she says at her home in the central
hill town of Kandy, evading questions on whether she would like to remarry or whether she feels she needs a companion.
Anojani Yatiwawala, 30 and also from Kandy, had been married for only
seven months when here husband was listed as missing in action.
She is reluctant to find herself another husband, though family and
friends urge her to do. ''Everyone tells me to get married, but what if he
(husband) comes back,'' she says.
Indeed, marriage does not always solve their problems. Stepfathers do
not always treat their children with respect and dignity, adds Fernando.
The difficulties are such that in October, a dozen widows representing
10 districts in the country met Defence Minister Tilak Marapana and
expressed their concerns over many issues, including remarriage.
The minister agreed to consider the proposal of widows' having access to
financial benefits after they remarry.
The widows also raised issues such as easier documents for collecting
financial benefits and a building provided by the state in each district
where they can meet regularly to discuss their problems.
But military officers are going further and are suggesting that the
government more strongly encourage widows to remarry to reduce the amount of benefits the state has to pay.
''This is a social problem. We cannot close our eyes to their needs.
That's why we are requesting a compromise -- if the war widows do get
married, not to stop their payments but to pay at least half to them so
that they can continue to lead a comfortable life with their children,''
Financial concerns, however, are far from the widows' only headache.
For Ashoka Chandralatha, the harassment began soon after her husband was listed as missing in action in 1995. She was just one month pregnant with their first child at the time.
''The nights were the worst. Stones would hit the roof and there were
other strange noises. I was terrified. I was all alone, there was nothing I
could do,'' she said at her one-room shack in Kandy where she lives with
her daughter, adding that neighbours were to blame.
Kanthi Chandra had to deal with pressure not only from the unwanted
advances by a middle-aged neighbour, but also from her own mother after the military plane her husband was travelling in disappeared in 1995.
Life has been full of trials and sorrow from the day she began getting
state benefits such as her dead husband's salary.
Her mother wanted the money to build a brick house instead of the wattle
and daub thatched place they had. She refused her mother's request, and was forced to leave the house with her daughter.
Chandra has been staying elsewhere since. She walks two kilometres a day for their water needs, in addition to walking several more kilometres to take her daughter to school.
''These (problems) I can face, but the harassment by the neighbour who
spread malicious rumours about me broke my spirit,'' she adds. There was
also an unwelcome visit by a soldier from her husband's army camp.
Copyright © 2002 IPS-Inter Press Service