India’s Covid-19 widows: a tale of grit and resilience in the face of despair
- The country’s deadly second wave has widowed thousands of women, who are struggling to return to some semblance of a normal life
- In India’s deeply patriarchal system, where remarriage for women is frowned upon and widowed mothers are treated with disdain, many are in dire straits
Farhana Sultana has her eight-day-old baby in her hands, while her two other children – aged five and seven – play outside her tiny house in the western Indian city of Pune. None of the little ones are aware they are fatherless, though it has been two months since the death of Sultana’s husband.
“I was pregnant when he passed away in late April. My children still think their father is in the hospital,” the 31-year-old said.
Despite the numbness in her voice, Sultana’s resolve to fight for survival for the sake of her children is unmissable.
Sultana is part of a programme launched by the United States-based non-profit IC3 Institute to give newly widowed women the skills needed to join the labour force.
“I’m trying to move on but I’m unable to,” she said. “All I need to do at the moment is to feed my kids.”
Worse, Roy has been abandoned by her in-laws, and she is now sheltering in her parents’ house along with her two children, aged four and seven.
“I was a pampered wife. My husband took care of everything. I can’t imagine a life without him,” Roy said, trying to hold back her tears.
“After his death, my in-laws suddenly changed. They have been cruel. My brother-in-law transferred all the money from my husband’s bank account to his account,” she said, explaining that she has little legal recourse to the funds as she is struggling to procure a death certificate for her husband.
“I thought I should kill myself. I still get suicidal thoughts,” Roy said, adding that the only thing stopping her was her children.
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Accounts of these “Covid widows” are spreading across the country as the long-term effects of the pandemic become apparent.
India reported 45,892 new Covid-19 cases on Thursday, with its official death toll crossing the 404,000 mark. But if local media reports – based on data collected from government bodies in urban centres – are to be believed, the actual fatalities could be several times that figure.
No numbers are available on how many women have been widowed by the pandemic, since the government has not released sex-specific details, but most experts point out that the male mortality rate for Covid-19 is higher.
This means more women have been left partnerless, and many children left missing a parent.
According to various estimates, there are currently anywhere between 40 million and 50 million widows in the country of some 1.4 billion people.
In India’s deeply patriarchal system, where remarriage for women is frowned upon and widowed mothers are frequently treated with disdain, many of these widows are in dire circumstances.
“High numbers of Covid widows are being reported in rural India. Many have come for help to organisations, asking for legal support, cash, food, and support for agriculture and education,” said Seema Kulkarni, founding member of the Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management non-profit.
Dr Neetha N., a professor at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies research institute, agreed that women were being disproportionately affected by the situation, not just in the wake of the pandemic but by the existing system.
“Women are concentrated in specific categories of work, like domestic workers or vendors in the informal sector. These categories are severely affected already,” she said. “From reports from NGOs and informal studies, there is now a growing number of widows.”
Finding jobs and finding the right employment to match their skills would be doubly difficult for the Covid widows since they were now desperate, Neetha added.
Several state governments have implemented widow-specific measures. Assam is providing a one-time financial assistance payment of 250,000 rupees (US$3,350) to bereaved women from low-income families, while Bihar has kick-started a pension scheme and Uttar Pradesh is set to roll out relief measures. But there has been no major announcement from the central government.
“There is no major intervention that directly addresses the concerns of women workers in terms of employment,” Neetha said. “There is some general support such as social programmes and the distribution of rations, [but] this is not enough to match what is required.”
Initiatives such as the website Covid Women Help – launched by Yudhvir Mor, who works for an American software company – are looking to bridge the gap. The volunteer-driven platform connects women with suitable corporate job opportunities.
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“What motivated me to start this was simple. I saw so many tragedies around me and I just wanted to help,” Mor said.
More than 200 companies have joined the programme, which now promises as many as 1,000 jobs, and 12,000 volunteers have signed up to help. More than 10,000 women have contacted the site for help.
“This is a huge number and we’re only scratching the surface of the severity of the pandemic,” Mor said. “I’d be joking if I say I can solve the problems of all those who seek help. We need all hands on deck – the government, NGOs and corporations.”
Names of the widows have been changed on request.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, or you know someone who is, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on +1 800 273 8255. For a list of other nations’ helplines, see this page.