New Wives Bring New Hope to Sri Lankan Widowers

Rambanda Dayananda, a fisherman in the village of Passikudah who tried to kill himself after his wife died in the tsunami in December, married his late wife's younger sister.
Rambanda Dayananda, a fisherman in the village of Passikudah who tried to kill himself after his wife died in the tsunami in December, married his late wife's younger sister. (Photos By John Lancaster -- The Washington Post)
By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 24, 2005

PASSIKUDAH, Sri Lanka -- Plunged into despair after the tsunami killed his wife and two of his four children, Ruknadhan Nahamani passed the first months after the disaster in an alcoholic fog, drowning his sorrows in the potent local liquor known as arrack . But grief was only part of the problem, he said.

"There was nobody to wash my clothes and take care of my kids when I went out to work," said the wiry 32-year-old fisherman, whose teeth are stained red from chewing betel nut, a mild stimulant. "It was really difficult."

But Nahamani is a single parent no more. In June, he exchanged wedding vows and jasmine garlands at a Hindu temple with a woman from a nearby village. "We are very happy," he said outside his tent at a refugee camp as his new wife, Leelawathi, heated cooking oil for the evening meal.

Such expedited remarriages raise no eyebrows in Sri Lanka, where, for many men, the solution to the loss of a wife in the Dec. 26 disaster is not to spend time in prolonged mourning but simply to find a new spouse as quickly as possible.

The result in many battered communities is a proliferation of weddings, especially among widowers with young children, who are typically taking new brides even before they have moved into permanent housing or resumed any semblance of normal life, according to aid workers and government officials.

Although there are no nationwide data on the phenomenon, the anecdotal evidence is striking: In this village, 31 of the 37 men whose wives died in the tsunami have remarried, according to local officials and aid workers.

The tsunami killed more than 30,000 people in this island nation of 20 million. An estimated 800,000 people were left homeless and many have not received permanent housing.

"The guys who have remarried, the widowers, are doing pretty well," said Rednan Alahudurai, the deputy village head. "They are getting on with life."

Besides a pragmatic need for help around the house by men who are used to leaving such matters to their wives, the trend also reflects the demographic fallout from Sri Lanka's 20-year civil war, which has left the country with a surplus of marriageable young women, according to Darini Senanayake, a Princeton-educated anthropologist in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital.

Women who lost husbands in the tsunami face a much harder road. Not only have they suddenly been thrust into the role of family breadwinner, but widows are often regarded as undesirable spouses in Sri Lanka and, in any case, tend to be reluctant to allow a new man into their home for fear of how he will treat his stepchildren, according to Senanayake and other experts.

"The women are stuck," said Alahudurai, the village official. "They have just given up on the thought of marriage."

Before the tsunami, Passikudah was a poor but beautiful place, dense with palm trees and foraging cows, on an isolated, windswept spur about 140 miles east of Colombo. Though tourists had lately begun to discover the area, most men earned their livings as fishermen, casting weighted nets from the beach or spending long hours at sea in slender outrigger canoes.

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