War widows ‘fish’ upon a star! Bringing back a bit of glitter into their lives

BY ZAHRAH IMTIAZ

Chavatkaddu is a fishing village in Jaffna, much like any other fishing village in the area, except for one thing, their village celebrity and spokesperson is a war widow. SailaIthayaraj, a petite an energetic woman, is well known in these areas as the widow who has been changing the lives of widows in her area through the organization ‘Tharaka Widows Activity Centre’.

c851Tharaka (Star) at first glance is no more than an old house which has had a fresh coat of paint, much like its occupants, the widows in the village. These women who once used to be shunned by their village as widows, now proudly run their organization. Here, they rule the roost and call the shots.
“See this fan here?” Asked Saila, as she pointed to the ceiling fan, “that is all new. We did not have any of this when we started out. Our biggest problem was to find a place in which we could hold a meeting. You see in our society they believe that widows should live a secluded life away from society. But I don’t believe in that”, said Saila as she began to relate her story of how she, a widow in a fairly traditional Tamil fishermen village became its spokesperson.
“In 1987 my father was killed in a shell attack during the war. I have three brothers and it was my mother who brought us up with great difficulty. Then when I was 17, my mother said it would be easier for us if I married my second cousin, so I did”.
Saila was married in 1993; a year later her daughter was born. Things however were not rosy for long, in 1996; her husband was shot while fishing at sea at Araali, Jaffna.
“My husband had gone fishing with four other men, and when they did not return for a few days, we went looking for them in the military camps nearby. It never occurred to us that they might be dead at sea. A month later, the body was recovered at sea, but by then, it was severely decomposed. I could not even give a proper burial to him”, she recalls.
A year later in 1997, her eldest brother was shot in the leg and this injury made him permanently disabled.
“I was very much affected by it all and went into a state of depression. It all seems to go wrong all at once. Everyone around me had lost someone, there was no hope and I did not know where to turn. Then I met
Dr. Somasundaram, he helped me recover through counselling”, said Saila.
At 19, Saila was a widow but she was determined that her life would not end there and she was also determined to help many other women who had suffered a similar plight,
“I saw the kind of suffering my mother had to undergo soon after my father died. I did not want to live like that; I did not want to be in such a vulnerable state. And I wanted to be an example to all widows, so I started this organization”, she explained.
Thus, “Tharaka” was started in 2002 to help the widows in her area cope, progress and succeed in life.
“There are many women-headed households in the area as a result of the war. These families depend on the woman for everything and she has to do it on her own. In such a circumstance how do you think she copes? The mental stress on her is enormous. Our organization helps them to get back on their feet”, said Saila.
The unique aspect of Tharaka is that unlike other self-help organizations, Tharaka provides the women with counselling to overcome mental trauma. This aspect in post war Sri Lanka though much needed has not been stressed on enough. The lack of awareness with regard to counselling and the dearth of counsellors, more often than not mean that many who need such services never receive it.
Official statistics show that there are 40,000 widows in the Northern province whereas 49,000 widows are from the Eastern province in Sri Lanka. In addition to that, 8,000 widows are with three children each and 12,000 are young widows in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka.
Tharaka…
“When we initially started out, there was a lot of opposition to our organization. When we wanted to meet near the school to hold a meeting, the villagers objected to it. They asked us why we needed a society when widows simply should stay at home and look after their children. In the end, I held our first meeting at my own home”, she explained.
While it was unfathomable for some that the widows in their village were forming a support system for themselves, for others it was an opportunity for ridicule,
“When our members used to carry around their files or even wear a cap, they used to make fun of us and try to discourage us from our work. I ask you, why should we always be sad? I have told our members, do not mind what people say, we will do our job well”, said Saila.
With so much opposition to the organization at the village, Saila said she was determined to build a strong organization with a place of their own. She found a house for rent in the village but the landlord had asked her to pay Rs 150,000 as an advance. Undeterred, she approached the then Minister of Hindu Cultural Affairs, T. Maheswaran for funding.
“I faxed, telephoned, and hounded the minister for three months before he relented and agreed to grant us Rs 100,000. But then I still needed another Rs 50,000 to get the building. This worried me a lot and I began to think that I would never be able to achieve my dream. It was then that a priest from Scotland came on a mission to help people here. Then I told him about our work and about our problems because I was so down hearted. Having heard the story, he assured us that he would give us the remaining Rs 50,000 that was needed.
Then you needed Rs 2,000 to register the organization and at that time, I did not have that money, so I told the father, “you have helped me so much, please grant this favour too and he gave us the Rs 2,000”.
The organization today has 105 members out of which 60 of them are widows who are below the age of 40.
The members have raised a fund among themselves where each of them contributes a fraction of her savings to it. This fund is then used to grant small loans of Rs 2,000-3,000 to members who need the money.
The organization also makes and sells seafood pickle at the market to earn an income. In addition to this they provide support to their members to raise their children, “we have a lot of young widows and when their husbands died they thought that their children would not be able to have a bright future. But we ask them not to be discouraged and we assured them that we would help them provide their children with the best”, said Saila.
Tharaka also reaches out to NGOs for their assistance to help their members as well as others in the village,
“A lot of people don’t have toilets or have issues with land, so we approach certain NGOs and get them to help people in our village. I talk to many people to get things done for the people in our area”, said Saila.
Saila’s determination and never-say-die attitude has made her a shrewd operator in the field. She coyly admits with a mischievous smile on her face.
“I have to think creatively when getting things for our organization. I once told the Scottish priest, ‘Father every time it rains our roof keeps leaking, we would be eternally grateful to you father when it rains if you could fix our roof.’ He agreed to it immediately. Our roof is fixed now”.
Similarly they agreed to work with Shanthiham, an organization which provides psychological support services, in return Shanthiham agreed to pay Tharaka’s rent for the year. Through another project, they received funding to install electricity, fans and other light switches they were in need of.
“We have now managed to change the perception that widows are to be sidelined, or are incapable of achieving anything in life. Today they come to me to get solved any issue; they have seen what we are capable of. The other day, there was a water problem in the villages in the area and the District Secretariat asked us to send one representative from all the villages to discuss on it. The villages chose me for that job. I am their spokesperson and they believe that I will get the job done. I was able to resolve the water crisis”, said Saila.
Tharaka has also extended their services to provide loans to around 60-70 women who are in abusive marriages. The members are able to receive training in beauty care or sewing so that they can earn a small income through such services. The organization’s premises are also used as a study hall for children so that they can pursue their studies in a calm environment and the girls come over to study during the day and the boys in the evening. The members have also had the opportunity to take a holiday every once in a while, Saila said they all enjoyed a lot on their recent trip to Colombo and Trincomalee.
Bigger challenges
Saila however is somewhat worried that the organization would need to have more resources to support their children, who are all growing up.
“As our children grow up, they have greater expectations. The members worry that they would need money to get them married or get them sorted out in a business. We don’t have enough funding for that. We have to thus think of ways in which we can get more funding”, she said.
Spreading the word
If men are the direct casualties of war, the women are its collateral damage. The war left many widows who needed support and Saila has been trying to promote the concepts of Tharaka in other areas,
“I went to the Wanni to talk to people soon after the war. I didn’t really tell many people here about it, I went on my own. I met several groups there.
As I started to talk to them about my experiences, they all started to cry, they said many have given us food but no one understands our mental trauma. They said, that it was only when I brought out the importance of counselling that they understood their grief. The pain cannot be understood by all, when I started to tell them my story, they were able to relate. They said that just talking about it relieved them of a great burden”.
Saila visits the Wanni once in 15 days as she cannot afford to go there more often. She said that there was an urgent need for psychological help for those who have suffered due to the conflict.
Marriage the second time around
Only two members in her organization have chosen to remarry, they were both young widows with no children.
“The others have 4-5 children, so they did not want to remarry because of the kids, others were not interested in remarrying at all”, she explained.
Her advice to those who wish to remarry is that they not get into a situation where they are worse off than before, “I have seen women whose second marriages were better than their first and instances where the second time was a complete disaster. It is not wrong to remarry; we only ask them to think twice before they take that leap”.
When asked whether the community accepted widows who chose to remarry, she said they were fine with it, if it was arranged between the two families but looked down upon it if the woman was to find her own husband,
“We cannot tell people what is wrong and what is not. It is their wish to do what they walt with their life. We have asked all our widows to simply do what makes them happy”, said Saila.
The wall at Tharaka is adorned with pictures of Saila receiving various awards. In one of them, she receives an award from the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa for her work in uplifting women in her area. She was also one of the 12 women in Sri Lanka nominated by the Swiss Commission for UNESCO to collectively win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
Saila is 36 years old, and as she ends her story for now, she wanted to know if we could drop her off at an event to promote Tharaka. Which request, of course we readily obliged.