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Sri Lanka

A new life for tsunami widowers in Sri Lanka

UNICEF Image: Sri Lanka: The State of the World’s Children
© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2006
Thangaiah Simson, 59, is a widower in Sri Lanka whose wife was swept away when the Indian Ocean tsunami ravaged his village in 2004.

UNICEF’s flagship annual report, ‘The State of the World’s Children’, focuses this year on the double dividend of gender equality, which helps both women and children overcome poverty. Here is one in a series of stories presented in the run-up to the report’s launch on 11 December – in this case, the story of what can happen when women are absent from a community.

BATTICALOA PROVINCE, Sri Lanka, 5 December 2006 – Thangaiah Simson, 59, a small, slight man with an intense, weather-beaten face, has four sons. One of them is married and has moved away from home, two are fishermen and the youngest, Satharsan, is 12 years old and still goes to school.

Like thousands of other Sri Lankans, Mr. Simson had his life changed forever on 26 December 2004, when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck.

He and his family saw the waves coming towards their village in Batticaloa Province on Sri Lanka’s east coast. They started running. The children managed to climb trees, but his wife was swept away. Her body was never recovered.

A new way of life

In Sri Lanka, 35,000 people died in the tsunami. In many areas, about twice as many women as men lost their lives, leaving a large number of widowers. Like Mr. Simson, some of these bereaved men have found themselves following a new and unexpected way of life – learning how to cook, washing clothes, seeing their children off to school and putting them to bed.

Some found they couldn’t manage and quickly looked for second wives. Others have settled into their new roles.

When his wife was still alive, Mr. Simson used to get up at around 6 a.m. to go to work. Now, he rises by 4:30 a.m. to prepare a meal for his youngest son and get him ready for school. Only then does he set off for his day’s work as a fisherman.

Grief and alcoholism

When the Eastern Self-Reliant Community Awakening Organization (ESCO), a local UNICEF partner, started to work in the cluster of four villages where Mr. Simson lives, they found 82 men who had lost their wives in the tsunami. They were not doing well. Some, who already had problems with alcoholism before the tsunami, were drinking even more.

UNICEF Image: Sri Lanka: The State of the World’s Children
© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2006
Mr. Simson and his son Satharsan, 12, outside their new home in the village of Paddiyadichenai.

Loneliness and bereavement took their toll, and for a time the men had no way to earn a living. Before the disaster, they used to go fishing twice a day, but their boats and equipment had been destroyed.

With international and local help, things slowly began to improve. The men are now fishing again. Bit by bit, a new village is being built further inland from where the old village was located. At the new site, rows of single-storey brick buildings, many complete or almost complete, line either side of a central path. Mr. Simson and others have moved into the new houses.

ESCO started two weekly support groups – one specifically for widowers and one focusing on alcoholism. Mr. Simson regularly attends both. In the widowers’ group, the men are given musical instruments and encouraged to play and talk about their lives. Sitting with a group of about 25 men, Mr. Simson says he used to be a very heavy drinker but has managed to cut down, even though he still has lapses.

Keeping families safe and well

In many parts of Sri Lanka, growing signs of conflict are making it difficult for men to go to work. In the Batticaloa area, soldiers and checkpoints frequently punctuate any journey. For fishermen who go to work either late at night or before dawn, the risk of armed attacks is especially acute.

Holding a family together after the tsunami, and now under the pervasive threat of conflict, is not an easy task. For widowers, the changes have often been bewildering and disturbing.

For fathers like Mr. Simson, things will never be the same. Now, he says, his only thoughts are for his children. From a shaded counter-top in his new, barely furnished home, he takes out his small collection of pots. Squatting on the floor, he begins to spoon out the rice, vegetables and fish for the next meal.



UNICEF Policy on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Girls and Women

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