Facing a lonely battle

A vulnerable group of women, the war widows ask for a chance to live again. Kumudini Hettiarachchi reports
The harassment began when she tried to pick up the pieces of her shattered life and build a tiny home for herself and her little daughter. Her world had earlier come to a standstill when she was just a month pregnant and was told that her husband was missing in action while on duty in Trincomalee in 1995.

Ashoka Chandralatha who had been married only about a year before being widowed, had the baby and with his salary, pension and Widows' and Orphans' payments which amounted to about Rs. 20,000 she began building a home. She was living in a one-room plank hut with her daughter.

"The nights were the worst. Stones would hit the roof and there would be strange noises. I was terrified. I was all alone, there was nothing I could do," she says, explaining that hooniam had been done to her property. But help came in the form of volunteers of the Ranaviru Family Counselling Service who advised her and gave her moral support to build part of her new home and move in.

She is reluctant to mention a male neighbour's involvement in this intrigue, which she found out much later. She had trusted him and laid bare her soul but she had been betrayed.

For winsome Kanthi Chandra, 30, the pressures came not only from an amorous, middle-aged neighbour but also from her own mother, soon after the plane her husband was travelling in disappeared between Negombo and Chilaw in 1995.
"Not a scrap of metalfrom the plane wreck has been found," says Kanthi, hoping against hope that he would walk through the door some day. Even her daughter of eight who never knew her father, for she was only a few months old when the plane disappeared is expecting him back.

Life has been full of trials and sorrow from the day her dead husband's salary came. Her mother wanted the money to build a brick maha gedera instead of the wattle and daub, cadjan thatched place they already had. When she refused, planning to build a home for the little one and save the balance, they were thrown out of home. She wept at her father's feet and took a tiny plot way up on a hill to build herself a home.

She does not have water and the way to her home is up a steep climb of about two kilometres or 300 rock-cut, slippery steps. She treks down many times a day, first to drop her child in school, then to wash her clothes at the public tap and bring back a pot of water on her hip for the cooking. The afternoon journey is to carry back her girl after school.

"These I can face but the harassment by the neighbour, who spread malicious rumours about me and even put up kele paththara broke my spirit," she recalls. There was also an unwelcome visit from a soldier from her husband's camp.

These are a few of the dangers that the widows of war heroes, numbering nearly 4,000 face. "They don't have money problems because they are adequately compensated. They receive the husband's salary, pension and if he was a permanent soldier even the payment from the Widows' and Orphans Fund," says Air Vice Marshal Harry Goonetileke, Chairman of the Ranaviru Family Counselling Service, explaining that there are other grave issues facing them.

Most of the widows are in the 22-35 group. "They are young and there is a humane problem we need to take into account. They need protection. Also what of their sexual or biological needs?" he asks.

Many so-called protectors come after their money. Sometimes these women are tempted to have a clandestine affair because of the loneliness. What happens is that they are led up the garden path and swindled by men who come in the guise of helping them. They themselves do not want to marry again because they lose their financial security as all payments are stopped forthwith.

"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 lead a comfortable life with their children," says Mr. Goonetileke.

Echoing their words, he says, "Give us a little bit and we'll get married." These war widows feel the loneliness of an empty marriage, though hesitant to say it outright, and long for love and security again. Is that unnatural, even though the love for their dead husbands is still strong and the pain of their parting is felt? They face a life of loneliness, struggling alone to bring up their fatherless children.

Some of these widows have been married a few years, others a few months and still others only a few weeks. Revonne Hewage's husband died just before peace dawned in the country. She had been married for three years and has a girl of five. "It is very difficult. Thanikama denenawa," she says.

Married for only seven months and with no children, Anojani Yatiwawala, 30, is hesitant to find herself another husband, though family and friends urge her to do so. "Everyone tells me to get married but what if he comes back," she says adding that her husband too has been declared missing in action.

The authorities need to look at this group of vulnerable women who have faced many a vicissitude, with sympathy and understanding. Do we condemn them to a life of loneliness or allow them to seek a bit of happiness once again, without cutting off that all-important financial lifeline?

A forum for the widows
It was a forum to air the grievances of the widows of soldiers, an opportunity for them to meet Defence Minister Tilak Marapana.

The meeting was organized by the Ranaviru Family Counselling Service (RFCS), a project of the Association of Retired Flag Rank Officers on October 4 at the main hall of Royal College. Acting Army Commander Major General L. C. R. Goonewardene, Navy Commander Vice Admiral D. Sandagiri and Air Force Commander Air Marshal G. D. Perera also gave ear to the grievances of about a dozen widows, representing 10 districts.

Amid the numerous problems presented, the issue of remarrying seemed to take precedence. RFCS President Air Vice Marshal Harry Goonetileke proposed that the government should continue to give the women at least half the sum they received as salary and pension if they remarried. "Most of these widows want to remarry for reasons such as security, emotional dependence and companionship. They also want someone to share the responsibility of rearing their children, as it is a hard task to be both father and mother to them."

"Of the 4,000 war widows, a large number want to remarry. Many of them have suitors or companions, ready to marry them. Rationally thinking, we could come to the conclusion that these men are interested in marrying them solely for the adequate sum they receive every month. But by cutting down the sum by half, we could keep away such impostors. Since the government allocates almost Rs. 40 million for this purpose, this arrangement will also reduce that sum by half," he said.

Among the other problems faced by these widows was the non-validity of the identification cards issued to them by the forces. As people treated this document with suspicion, it was suggested that it should have the signature of a higher official. Most of the women also asked that they be allotted a permanent building in each district, where they could meet and discuss their problems.

Minister Marapana responded to a few problems immediately, explaining that the others needed procedural solutions. "The widows have to submit a certificate issued by the Grama Sevaka every three months, claiming that they are not remarried, to receive their dead husbands' pensions. But in future, this claim needs to be proclaimed only verbally," he said. -Vidushi

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