Sri Lanka: Saila Ithayaraj

A widow's daughter who is herself a widow, Saila Ithayaraj has made it her life's mission to help others in her situation, battling inbred cultural prejudices.

— Saila Ithayaraj

A widow's daughter who is herself a widow, Saila Ithayaraj's life changed when she came into contact in 2002 with an organization called Shantiham, which works for the well-being of people living in Sri Lanka's long-ravaged conflict zones. Rising above her own sorrows, she has herself become an activist in a village with 65 widows, and travels around the country to relate her experiences and bond with others like herself.

Saila Ithayaraj (born 1977) is the eldest of four children of a fisherman, and lives in the war-torn Jaffna province in northern Sri Lanka. Her father was killed at sea during shelling in 1987 by the Indian peacekeeping force which intervened in the Sri Lankan civil war. The tragedy interrupted her education beyond class ten, and she married a cousin in 1994 at the age of 17. Tribulation came visiting a second time when her husband, also a fisherman, was arrested by the Sri Lankan navy in 1996-his body was found a month and half later. By then, Saila had a daughter. As two women with four younger dependents to feed, she and her mother had a hard life. Depressed and frustrated, Saila confined herself to her house for five years. The problems became worse when the family were displaced by intrastate conflicts. In 2002, Saila's life began to change: an organization called Shantiham, which works for the psychosocial well-being of people in Sri Lanka's conflict zones, began to work with 65 widows in her village. They were formed into a group; Saila became its president. Saila has now been an activist for over three years, working mainly on the empowerment of widows, and village development through infrastructure and education. Her group, Tharaka, has raised funds to build houses and wells for villagers, not only for the families of widows, but also those of the other underprivileged. It managed to return to school all the children who had dropped out due to the internecine conflict, and arranged private classes at its center for the village students. Saila also networks with women from other parts of Sri Lanka who are in a similar situation. Knowing how it felt to be ostracized as a widow, Saila has worked hard to raise the self-esteem of the women, changing cultural prejudices about widowhood.

Tharaka Center for Widows