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Today, June 23, is International Widows Day. I didn’t know there was such a thing until the Loomba Foundation spotted one of my tweets about widowhood and followed me. Here are the stats furnished by the foundation:

  • There are now over 258 million widows around the world, who between them have 585 million children.
  • Over 100 million widows live in extreme poverty struggling to survive.
  • Around 81 million widows in the world today have been abused.
  • 5 million children belonging to widows die before their fifth birthday.
  • Widows have been targeted victims of rape, torture and murder. Others are forced into prostitution and remarriage.
  • Many widows are victims of property theft, social isolation, physical and psychological abuse.
  • Millions of children belonging to widows face child marriage, illiteracy, loss of schooling, forced labour, human trafficking, malnutrition, homelessness, prostitution and rape.

The widows of Sri Lanka, 2004

I immediately thought of the widows of Sri Lanka, victims—as surely as their husbands—of the tsunami that struck the island on Dec. 26, 2004.

A year and a day later, I made the long journey from Corpus Christi to DFW to London Heathrow to Dubai to Sri Lanka with three other members of First Baptist Church. We were a construction team, a tiny part of a worldwide Baptist effort to build a new village for the poorest survivors, those who had lived in squatters’ huts on the beach. (More accurately, the other three were the construction team. I was cook.)

lotus blossomField personnel drove us 60 miles down the coast to the construction site, a three-hour trip through some of the worst of the tsunami damage. About halfway down, approaching Kalutara, we spotted a large white Buddhist stupa on the other side of the river. Hundreds of women, mostly young, dressed in white saris and carrying blue lotus blossoms, walked in solemn procession across the bridge to the stupa. Our driver explained the significance. White is the color of mourning in Sri Lanka, and these were the women of the area who had been widowed by the tsunami a year earlier. He explained their plight. Their life was over. No man would marry them. Neither their families nor their husbands’ wanted them. They would be dependent on others for support forever. Better than the old Indian tradition of burning the widow on the funeral pyre with her husband, but not good. Not even close to good.

Sri Lanka was transformational for me. I fell in love with those beautiful, gentle people and their island paradise. I wanted to see them living in their new three-bedroom masonry houses with electricity, septic tanks and running water.

Return to Sri Lanka, 2013

In 2013, I returned, flying from Bangkok to Colombo, where I was met by a private guide who took me back to Hikkaduwa and Galle and helped me find the Baptist Village. The highway was much modernized. Most of the storm damage had been cleared away, and the beach resorts were busy. When I saw the stupa in the distance, I asked the driver to stop. Sri Lankans were celebrating the Full Moon holiday; and the bridge, embankment and stupa had the air of a carnival. But I remembered the widows in their white saris, carrying their lotus blossoms. What had happened to them? How many were able to make new lives for themselves?

Lord Raj Loomba, a British industrialist, created his foundation to honor his mother, who became a widow at age 37. He lobbied the U.K., then the U.N., for a day to arouse consciousness about the plight of widows worldwide. He enlisted the support of people like Cherie Blair, wife of the former Prime Minister; Richard Branson, Virgin Air; and Yoko Ono. It may be just a tiny pebble thrown into the ocean, but it reminds me to count my blessings. Like most widows in the West, I have countless choices and opportunities. Most of the widows of the world do not.

Photos: Buddhist stupa, Kalutara, Sri Lanka—where the Kalu Ganga River empties into the Indian Ocean—24 Feb 2013; a blue lotus blossom, with its deep significance to Buddhists.

Tips for Safe, Solo Travel will resume next Tuesday.