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Fishing village widows eternally tied to the sea

Update: October, 28/2014 - 08:15
Tran Thi Thanh repairs her fishing vessel. When her husband died, she had no choice but to go out to sea, like many of the women in Chau Thuan Bien fishing village who have lost their husbands. — VNS Photo Huu Cuong

by Huu Cuong

QUANG NGAI (VNS) — For women in the small village of Chau Thuan Bien, the sea is like a double-edged sword. It provides their livelihood, but takes away many of their husbands.

The village of 475 people is located in Binh Chau Commune, Quang Ngai Province, about 42km from Quang Ngai city. It was recently in the spotlight when an ancient ship containing valuable artefacts was discovered nearby.

Most residents have to rely on fishing because the area, covered mostly in white sand, has insufficient freshwater for raising cattle or planting crops. Fishermen cannot afford large vessels, so they use small boats and must venture far offshore to find fishing areas. This makes them more vulnerable to adverse weather conditions.

In one of the hamlets in this village, 22 out of 47 households have lost family members at sea. During the 2009-12 period alone, 33 village fishermen died at sea.

Each vessel can carry only five to seven fishermen. Each fisherman typically ventures to the sea two or three times per year.

Pham Thi Bay, 46, one of the 28 widows in the village, lost her husband in a fishing trip eight years ago. The villagers made many efforts to recover his body but failed. After three months and 10 days hoping in vain that the waves would return him, she finally had to build a "wind grave" or a grave without the body to honour his memory.

When the men are out at sea, the women live in anxiety. Occasionally, one can see a woman running along the seashore and calling her husband's name.

Nguyen Thi Hay, 52, lost her husband more than 15 years ago. They had been married for three years.

"All of the other ships arrived but his ship never returned after the storm. Everything collapsed in front of my eyes," she recalled.

Yet women grow accustomed to the widowed life. Huynh Thi Thu, 37, a mother of three, said most of the women chose to remain widows because of tradition, adding that they prioritised taking care of the children left behind. Many of the children have never seen their fathers.

When these women's husbands died, they receive a small amount of financial support from the provincial Red Cross. In need of a way to earn more money, these women replace their husbands as the families' breadwinners. Some go fishing near the shore while others work on fishing vessels as cooks or assistants. Others buy fish and resell them at markets or get involved in fish processing.

Nguyen Thi To Nga, deputy chairwoman of the Binh Son District Women's Union, said the union had limited support for these widows as well as other family members of the missing fishermen.

"Every season they have to wait in anxiety. Some return with fish and some never come back," she said.

Still, the women treasure the sea. Every year, between the 15 and 30 of the first lunar month, the villagers hold a ritual where they pray for the first vessel going to sea and ask for the fishermen to return safely.

Tran Thi Thanh, 59, has replaced her late husband on the sea. Her hands display the usual roughness of sea people.

"We live with the sea. We can't abandon it," she said. — VNS

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