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Today, as people around the world celebrate International Women's Day, scores of tsunami widows are still waiting for help. Uppermost in their minds is the hope of getting long-term scholarships for their children and assistance in finding jobs

Story and photos by Sanitsuda Ekachai

Widowed by the tsunami, many young mothers are facing an uphill struggle to rebuild their lives.

She used to be full of hope. But her world suddenly went dark the day that a wrathful ocean robbed her of both husband and father in one fell swoop. "We were planning to sell the fish we'd raised to build a little house of our own," recalls Jamriang Niyomdecha, 31, of Baan Hin Laad, a Muslim village in Phang-nga's Khura Buri district.

"That was the dream we had together." Her voice trembles then she begins sobbing quietly, holding her one-year-old son more tightly to her bosom. Her eldest, a girl, is only three.

"We talked of getting a good education for the two children so that they wouldn't have as hard a life as we've had. But now I have no job, no income. How am I going to put them through school, let alone feed them?"

At dawn on December 26, Jamriang's husband and father put on to sea in their fishing boat. Normally they'd have been back home close to noon, bringing with them the crabs which it was her job to cook, extracting the meat for sale. Now she and her mother, both widowed by the tsunami, are on their own.

So, too, is Vasana Saengthong, a 31-year-old resident of the same village. The tsunami took her loving husband, left her crushed by grief and in the unenviable position of being a single mother without any means of support.

Vasana has four small children, aged eight, six, four and two. One of them is crippled.

"Sometimes I feel as if my head's going to burst open," Vasana confides. "I can't stop thinking about my husband. I still can't believe what's happened.

 

Vasana Saengthong : "My children have kept me alive … kept me sane."

"I'm deeply worried for my kids. How will I ever manage to bring them up to be good people. How am I going to do it all alone?"

 

The same question weighs heavily on other tsunami widows, many of whom have small children but no source of income to rebuild their shattered lives. 

There are five of them at Baan Hin Laad alone, and nearly 20 in just one sub-district, according to a survey conducted by the Foundation for Women. There are still no official figures available for the number of people in the six tsunami-hit provinces who lost spouses _ which partly explains why no attempt has yet been made to meet the special needs of widows and widowers.

Uppermost in their minds is the hope of getting long-term scholarships for their children and occupational assistance for themselves: help in finding jobs so that they can start supporting their families.

"The people who come to our village only ask about the kids. They never ask about us women," says Jamriang. "Mothers like us also need help so that we can find work and feed our children."

Islam, she explains, prohibits women from touching donations meant for their offspring _ a measure apparently designed to protect children's welfare. "So we mothers need separate help."

According to Chortip Chaicharn, manager of the Foundation for Women, being female _ and the mother of young children, to boot _ has made it particularly difficult for the tsunami widows to get help. After long letting their men deal with the outside world, these widows are simply unprepared to step out of their domestic milieus and seek help; they are unfamiliar with the language of officialdom, with the ways of the bureaucracy and the formal procedures which those applying for assistance must follow.

They are also bound by the ties of motherhood.

"Having small children to take care of, they just can't leave the house to go look for donations in cash or in kind. You see, most of the donors go to the tsunami relief centres which are far from where they live," Chortip explains.

"That means that the widows are simply unable to reach the aid," she adds.

Fortunately one individual in Ban Hin Laad, a woman named Orawan Madteh, took it upon herself to collect rice and other donated items from a relief centre located within the compound of a Buddhist temple and then distribute them to the widows in her village. But now, more than two months after the tsunami struck, supplies at the relief centre are running low. Jamriang reckons she has only enough rice to last her household another month. "I don't know what I'm going to do after that."

Since the widows are such an inaccessible group, Chortip says a survey should be done to locate them and then it will be necessary to initiate outreach and home-visit programmes to monitor their needs and help them become self-reliant. "We can't wait for them to reach us."

Naturally, these women's concerns focus primarily on their children with the majority glossing over or putting to one side their personal needs. Many of them still haven't got over the deaths of their husbands and are fearful about the future, says Chortip. "They were already quite poor. Their houses are mere flimsy shacks. The tsunami tragedy has plunged them deeper into difficulty."

And as they struggle to cope with their loss, their young children's constant pleading for coins to buy sweets and other small treats only serves to aggravate their stress and sense of inadequacy all the more.

"Their distress is such that some have become edgy and irritable with their children," says Chortip, "while others have begun thinking about looking for work in Malaysia to support their families."

In desperation, some are planning to withdraw their older daughters from school so they can help take care of the younger siblings.

To ease their sense of isolation and helplessness, the tsunami widows need urgent psychological help to get in touch with their feelings and express the grief they've been bottling up. Assurances that assistance will be forthcoming for their children would greatly lessen these women's anxieties, Chortip adds.

Helping them find new ways to earn a living poses yet another huge challenge.

Many of the widows are still in a state of shock and don't know what occupation they should take up much less what it would take to make that happen. This is particularly true of housewives who have had no experience of working outside the home. And that's why the Foundation for Women wants to end their isolation and help them link up with other victims as part of the emotional healing process.

After attending a meeting of tsunami victims, Jamriang says she feels better about her situation and more confident about the future. "I've learned that there are a lot of people suffering like me, or who have it even worse. I've also learned that there are people out there who can help us."

Encouraging the widows to form self-help groups _ to draw up babysitting rosters, for instance, or discuss employment possibilities _ will not only answer some of their practical needs, "but is also part and parcel of the empowerment process", Chortip explains.

And there's another group of women which has been completely overlooked in the massive tsunami aid effort: single mothers who were widowed or got divorced prior to December 26. They were already raising their kids independently but lost their jobs as a result of the tragedy or had tools and equipment they used to earn a living destroyed or carried away by the killer waves.

Because their husbands did not die in the tsunami, their children are not eligible to get the scholarships being offered to other youngsters in the affected provinces. Nor are they themselves able to get assistance in finding new sources of income. But since they have previous experience working outside the home, these women would only need a small amount of money, some emergency seed capital, to enable them to get back on their feet again, Chortip points out.

Jamriang and Vasana, whose children are still toddlers, say what they need is work they can do at home while they look after their little ones.

And they need their kids as much as their kids need them. "Had it not been for my children, I really don't know how I'd have survived the death of my husband," says Vasana, her eyes red-rimmed and puffy. "My children have kept me alive … kept me sane."

 

INFORMATION FOR DONATIONS

 

– Name of organisation: The Foundation for Women

– Contact person: Chortip Chaicharn

– Address: 295 Charan Sanitwong Soi 62, Bang Phlad, Bangkok 10700

– Telephone: 02-433-5149

– Fax: 02-434-6775

Web site: http://www.womenthai.org/

– Bank info: Kasikorn Bank, Sathon branch

– Savings account name: Foundation for Women

– Account number: 038-2-18085-2

Make money orders payable to: Foundation for Women, PO Box 47, Bangkok Noi 10700. Please also fax a copy of your money order to the organisation stating that your donation is to assist its programme for widows.

…..

OUTLOOK – Tuesday 08 March 2005

BANGKOKPOST

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