Not much research seems available on the plight of widows in the countries of South East Asia, but the stories that do emerge tell of women – sometimes with several young children - who are desperately struggling to survive.
There’s no pension, no external support. And while they are not discriminated against as in India or Africa, their life is one of unrelenting hardship because what they can earn is barely enough to buy food once bills have been paid and debts serviced.
So not surprisingly many widows end up in the sex trade or go to other countries to work, where abuse is all too common.
Cambodia has a high percentage of widows due to the decimation of the male population during the Khmer Rouge era. Men were taken away, supposedly to work for the regime, and later the wife would learn that her husband had been murdered by the Khmer Rouge.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands of widows of murdered men were ferried to the island of Koh Khsach Tunlea with their younger children (children older than 10 were sent to work camps) and there they lived under the watchful eye of the Khmer Rouge, unable even to grieve because shedding a tear would mark them as enemies of the regime.
They were forced to work extremely hard and given almost no food; and they lived in constant fear of inadvertently saying or doing something that would displease the Khmer Rouge guards and result in their own execution.
The legacy of those years remains in the memory of older widows today, who are still forced to work brutally long hours trying to earn enough to survive. They may not be abused by degrading customs or extreme social isolation, but the memories they carry with them must be a kind of inescapable abuse.
Widows in Cambodia do have to deal with a type of discrimination, since in their culture it’s considered inappropriate for a woman to be alone without the protection of a husband or father. But the reality is that many women, widows and single, have been forced to take on roles that involve working outside the home, with men. They are therefore stigmatized by their community with the inference that perhaps they aren’t morally upright.
It’s similar in Indonesia, where even the founder of an NGO dedicated to helping older widows is asked by the press what his wife thinks about this (the implication being that lust is his motivation). There seems to be considerable amazement that anyone would think that widows need to be assisted!
However, the situation is changing, and grassroots organizations are working to empower widows. For instance, in Indonesia:
"PEKKA works to transform the lives of women heads of families – in effect, the poorest of the poor – by applying a combination of feminist popular education and community organizing processes to the building of cooperative forms of saving and microfinance. While the women benefit from much-needed access to cash, the ultimate goal of PEKKA is more ambitious: to build a grassroots movement of women-led economic cooperatives that empower women individually and collectively to transform their lives and their communities, and challenge the structures and belief systems that breed discrimination and poverty. This movement and the cooperatives embody an alternative solidarity-based economic and political culture which they promote in their families and communities."