JAFFNA : Among the deep and seemingly indelible scars of the 30-year war in North Sri Lanka is the existence of an estimated 40,000 widows in the Northern Province - the scene of an alleged massacre towards the end of the conflict.
Among the victims of the senseless destruction, those widowed were the most affected. Widows were forced to become family breadwinners overnight even while carrying the stigma of being a “social ill omen.” Economic deprivation and social rejection combined to push these women into deep depression.
“Worst of all, their families began to go to seed,” pointed out Saila, a war widow who runs Tharaka Widows’ Activity Center at Chavatkaddu, a fishing village in Jaffna district.
The confidence that 37 year old Saila exudes today, was created in the crucible of tragedy. She was only 17 when her fisherman father was killed in an artillery shell attack, and only 26 when her husband was killed by the navy in mid-sea. A year later, her brother was permanently disabled in another shell attack.
“ My mother and I were both widows, but while she went into depression, I was determined to fight it. Psychiatrist Dr.Daya Somasundaran of Shantiham showed the way out for me,” Saila recalled.
Somasundaram believes that traumatized and marginalized persons can be mainstreamed through participation in social activism, group activity and assumption of leadership roles.
Saila floated “Tharaka”, which, to date, has rescued 105 women from depression and despondency.
However, initially, it was difficult to get widows to join “Tharaka”.
“Families said that the duty of the widow is to stay home and look after the rest of the family and not go gallivanting. House owners were reluctant to rent their premises to us to hold our meetings,” a pained Saila recalled.
Saila realized that rehabilitation has to address existential issues first. Since economic hardship was the main problem, she got the widows to do a small business together. They started to pickle fish and market them. A chit fund gives loans up to LKR 3000 to members to meet their personal and business expenditure.
But ambitious Saila has widened the canvas for “Tharaka”. Its members get involved in solving Chavakkad’s civic problems.
“The once marginalized widows now intercede with the government on behalf of the village. Recently, we solved a severe water problem. Seeing our successes, villagers are now using us as their spokespersons! ” she said proudly.
Saila’s work has found resonance across the island and the world. The Finnish government has provided funds, and in 2005, she was among 12 Lankan women nominated by UNESCO for the Nobel Peace Prize.