Nobody has been untouched by the COVID-19 pandemic, with one of the most brutal effects being bereavement. In India, where widowhood has long been stigmatised often to shocking degrees, ‘COVID widows’ are struggling.
Widowhood is a global issue which relegates many bereaved women, having undergone incalculable tragedy, to the sidelines of society. This has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres points out in a statement on the occasion of International Widows’ Day.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has both increased the number of widows globally and exacerbated many of the challenges they face, including access to bank accounts and pensions,” he said. “As governments provide economic and social support in response to the pandemic, they must consider the world’s 250 million widows. Even before the pandemic hit, nearly one in ten widows lived in extreme poverty.
“Social assistance, including cash transfers and pensions, can help support widows who are often left to take full responsibility for their families. Governments should make special efforts to ensure these measures reach women with low visibility, for example, those without identity cards or bank accounts…I urge every country, as a critical element of my Call to Action on Human Rights, to pass and implement legislation and policies that promote gender equality, and to repeal all discriminatory laws that perpetuate women’s subjugation and exclusion.
“The persecution and disinheritance of widows, by law and custom, is one of the worst examples of gender discrimination. On International Widows’ Day, let’s commit to making sure all widows occupy a respected place in our societies, with access to legal and social protection, so they can live their lives in peace and reach their full potential.”
For India, Guterres’s call to action is heartwrenchingly applicable. According to the Kamla Foundation, India is home to some forty million widows – accounting for ten percent of the country’s female population. The number could be even higher. As The Hindu Business Line reported in October 2017 (updated the following January), “widowed women populate India in significant numbers…There are at least 55 million widows in India, probably more. That is around the same as the entire population of countries like South Africa and Tanzania, more than all the people in South Korea or Myanmar.”
The pandemic has led to ‘COVID widows’ populating India in significant numbers, as the hundreds of thousands of lives lost due to COVID-19 have left many wives bereaved of their husbands. An Al Jazeera report cites the story of one woman who, at six weeks pregnant, contracted COVID-19 alongside her husband. A week later, her husband passed away; two days afterwards, the woman miscarried. “For the last two years, we were trying for a baby and when finally everything was going fine, the virus devastated my entire world and took everything I had in my life,” she told the publication.
Not only do women face the heartbreak of loss. They are also left facing extraordinary difficulty in the aftermath. As Al Jazeera notes, “most of those men were the sole earners in their families” – this at a time of economic disruption which has left many ‘COVID widows’ struggling to enter the workforce.
As The Strait Times reports, “India already has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, women accounted for a mere 10.7 percent of the workforce from 2019 to 2020, with the pandemic further putting stress on working women. Issues such as lack of childcare options, reduced mobility and concerns about safety keep Indian women at home.”
Fortunately, help has become available in the form of Covid Women Help, a website which allows widows to register in order to find employment or to find new jobs. And whilst it has helped many bereaved women, there are problems – as its founder Yudhvir Mor acknowledges. Quoted by The Straits Times, he states “a lot of people have reached out to us and to be frank, we are still scratching the surface…the kind of death toll, the issue is much bigger. So I have been really working on how to reach out to smaller cities and villages.” He aims to find job opportunities for 10,000 COVID widows in the next six months.
Such advocacy and efforts are undoubtedly heartening, especially in a society where the experience of many widows even before the pandemic was hallmarked by economic uncertainty and, in some instances, extreme cases of marginalisation and stigmatisation. Many widows face dehumanising, degrading treatment, from being driven away from their families (giving rise to the so-called “city of widows”, Vrindavan, where many women stay in ashrams) to solitary confinement to being forced to shave their heads and eschew ‘vanity’ to forced abstinence.
Through the plight of ‘COVID widows’, the pandemic – as has been the case with many social issues – has highlighted deep, systemic, societal issues. The support being offered to ‘COVID widows’ to empower them to enter the workforce is gladdening, as has been gestures in years past. As The Independent previously highlighted, “many of India’s castaway widows – most of them illiterate, some married off as infants – have seen significant improvements in their quality of life over the past few years. Prodded by a flurry of public petitions and court rulings, the government and rights groups have invested tens of millions of dollars into lifting the conditions of abandoned women. The money has gone not only into building group homes for widows, but also to funding pensions and providing work training and medical treatment.”
As I wrote for Health Issues India on the occasion of International Widows’ Day last year, “the stigma surrounding widows endures today and ought to be addressed. It is undoubtedly good that governments, NGOs, and other entities are working to support widows – but there is a broad societal need, one no less than a moral and social imperative, to end the stigma surrounding widowhood. Taking an axe to social mores that denigrate widows and affording them the respect and humanity they deserve will not be an easy task. However, for society’s sake, it must not be viewed as a task beset by insurmountable odds.” Such sentiments are as apposite on the occasion of Widows Day this year – and the pandemic has served as a cattle prod to stimulate action. Whether it will last remains to be seen.