Putting the Pieces Back Together
“The day my husband left me and went off with another woman, that was the day my life ended” said Inoka (her name and the names of all women interviewed in this story have been changed to protect their privacy). The events of that day are still etched in her mind, even though it was almost five years ago. Inoka had moved to her husband’s village soon after her marriage and had adapted to the hard life of living and working in a rural, rice-growing community in the central region of Sri Lanka.
Although she had been earning more than half the family’s income with her daily earnings as a manual labourer in the fields, Inoka was left without a home and a means of income soon after her husband left her. His family, who owned the small field which they farmed and on which stood their small mud hut, demanded that she leave with her three young children. She returned to her family, who considered her a disgrace. “I was told that I must have been a terrible wife to make my husband leave me. They heaped every possible insult on my head. They accused me of having extra marital affairs, even though it was my husband who left with another man’s wife!” said Inoka, her dark eyes bright with tears and her voice choked with emotion.
An aunt took over the care of her two older children and Inoka was asked to move out with her youngest child, at that time a baby of only 8 months. “I was 26 years old, I had no husband, I had a small baby and I knew only to work in the fields. Where could I get a job? Who would look after me and not expect any sexual favours in return?” she demanded. For over a year, Inoka moved from village to village, always searching for work and a safe place to stay. A petite woman with long black hair, and sparkling eyes, Inoka was attractive and had to bear the sexual advances of men as well as the jealousy and suspicion of women. “No wonder widows are a cursed lot. We can’t find favour in anyone’s eyes, can we?” she asks.
Through a friend of her employer, she came to hear about a place called the Esther Centre, a Christian home for widows and single mothers which offered a one-year residential programme. During this one year, they receive training in a variety of different vocations and are given the opportunity to eventually select one which suits them best. They also participate in individual and group counselling which seeks to help them grapple with the issue of being a single woman or a single mother, and to deal with the deep hurts caused by their husbands, family and society in general. Restoring their self-identity and dignity and renewing their self-worth are also important elements in this process. And most importantly, they have 12 months in which they and their children have a safe environment to live and have no financial worries.
Working with these women, I have seen how essential it is to give them this respite of even a few months. Theirs has been a story of constant struggle, sometimes against bitter and traumatic circumstances, always fighting to protect themselves and their children, to survive.
The social stigma of what is labelled “widowhood” in Sri Lanka – whether widowed through death, abandonment or divorce – can sometimes be an overwhelming issue for women. The stigma can even be harder than learning to cope on your own. “The social stigma that surrounds widows in Sri Lanka has not made these women's tasks any easier and is a key contributor to their own lack of self-worth and confidence and their sense of guilt (for being alive, for being bad mothers) and victimhood,” says Malathi De Alwis, a researcher and author on women’s issues.
Due to the military conflict that raged in the country for nearly three decades, the number of women-headed households has grown dramatically. Government figures of 2006 stated that nearly 25% of households were headed by women, but organisations working with women now place that figure closer to 40%.
As a woman without a husband, Inoka and others like her, are considered a bad omen and thought to bring bad luck. They are kept away from all auspicious events of their community, and are often looked on as a disgrace by their families. “I learnt soon enough to stay away from family events like weddings, the traditional ceremonies of a girl reaching puberty, or even birthday parties,” says Inoka. “When you have to always stand at the back of a room, when people avoid speaking to you or looking at you, that reminds you how unfortunate you are.” There are many myths about widows, the bad luck they bring, and the strange powers of evil they can unleash. There are such myths and beliefs about widows amongst all three ethnic groups in Sri Lanka – the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims.
This social seclusion can sometimes be devastating, and often leads to women being more vulnerable and open to exploitation, especially by men who see them as “loose women”.
Anusha is only 24 years old, and was widowed last year when her husband was killed in a motor accident. She and her 3 year old daughter continued to live and work in the terracotta-tile factory, where she and her husband had worked for over 5 years. Anusha was grateful for a place to stay and the meagre income she received for working 12-14 hours every day. But the factory owner soon made it clear that if she wanted to stay on, she would have to allow grant him sexual favours. Within a few months she became pregnant and when the factory owner’s wife found out, Anusha and her daughter were thrown out. She was forced to live on the streets, begging for food.
“The majority of widowed heads of household in Sri Lanka face a constant battle for economic stability, privacy, physical safety, and most important, self-worth and social dignity,” says Ms. De Alwis. “In a society that has convinced itself that men are the breadwinners and sustainers of their families and women ideally suited to the roles of housewife and mother, women-headed households are perceived as temporary aberrations that must soon be rectified through remarriage or consolidation within a male-headed extended family. Because of such assumptions, women-headed households have not become a topic of national concern or debate in the same way that women garment-factory workers or foreign domestic aides have become.”
Widows are an ignored and overlooked segment of society, even though the phenomenon of women–headed households has grown rapidly in both urban and rural areas. The widows of soldiers and other armed forces personnel, who form the largest segment of this group, are paid a pension by the military – but this ceases upon their remarriage.
In conservative Sri Lankan society, a woman’s life is seen as consisting of three stages: childhood, marriage, widowhood. And once a widow, or divorced, there is great social pressure to remain that way. Women who want to consider re-marriage are considered akin to prostitutes, and considered terrible mothers who do not put their children’s needs first.
The sense of fatalism, often referred to as “karma” in both Sinhala and Tamil communities, often convinces the women that some sinful act in their previous lives have led to this “curse of widowhood” to befall them. They often believe that they are now cursed for life and are helpless to change their circumstances. The programmes at Esther Centre strive to challenge this mindset and to introduce them to new perspectives on their lives and to encourage them to begin living fulfilling lives for themselves and their children.
Inoka and Anusha both found themselves at Esther Centre at the same time and became good friends. Inoka was able to regain custody of her older children. Anusha had a baby boy whom she gave up for adoption before joining the programme at Esther Centre. As they look forward to a future where they can be financially independent and lead productive lives in their community, they are still worried about the stigma of being single mothers and their “widowed” status.
A soft spoken woman, Anusha has been struggling to open up to me about her experiences. But once she begins to talk to me, she can’t seem to stop, as she takes me through the last year of very painful experiences. Finally she stops and looks at me with tears pouring down her face. “I have a daughter, and if one day she has the misfortune to be a widow, I will stand up for her. I will show society that a widow is not someone to be ashamed of. This situation must change, it must. And if no else does it, then I will be the one,” she says, with determination written on her face. I can only hope that Anusha’s daughter never has to face that day. But if she does, I am glad that she will be one widow in Sri Lanka who will not be shunned by her family.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 31 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most forgotten corners of the world. Meet Us.