Taruna Arora lost her husband Rajeev to Covid-19 two days before her 50th birthday.
Rajeev contracted the virus in April, during the devastating second wave of Covid in India. Medical resources were scarce, hospitals overwhelmed, and his family struggled to get him hospitalized. Eventually they found a hospital bed in a makeshift facility set up by the government, but two weeks later he died.
“Rajeev’s death is paralyzing. These are the worst days of my life, but I don’t have time to cry because my life has taken a 360-degree turn,” says Taruna, 46. Rajeev, who worked in the telecommunications industry, was the only bread winner of the family and made most of the financial decisions. Now Taruna relies on their savings and limited knowledge of finances to support their two children.
“We have always led a comfortable life and I got everything I asked for. He made all the budget and I just asked him for money. Now I don’t know how long our savings will last because I have never managed them alone,” says Taruna.
He hopes to find a job to support the children, but he has no work experience and doesn’t know where to start. “I just want to get a job, get out of the house, meet people and have a cup of tea with someone. When I’m at home the pain doesn’t make me sleep.”
India has been one of the nations most affected by Covid-19 in the world, recording over 440,000 official deaths so far. The pandemic has left tens of thousands of newly widowed women struggling to adjust to a new life.
Many of these women have never been in paid work before. According to the World Bank, India’s female labor force participation rate – which was less than 21% in 2019 – is one of the lowest in the world..
Many have lost their families’ only bread winner, and as their worlds have changed overnight, they are struggling to manage the double burden of pain and financial hardship. Gender roles and patriarchal norms at home mean they were financially dependent on their male partners and were excluded from financial services.
According to the World Bank, Indian women in 2017 were nearly 13% less likely than men to be able to raise money in an emergency. Indian women were also 6% less likely than men to have a bank account – a problem that is only made worse by the fact that Indian women are also significantly less likely than men to own a cell phone or use mobile internet.
This makes it more difficult for women like Taruna to access compensation, such as the recent announcement by the Indian government to pay a sum of 50,000 rupees ($ 674; £ 500) to the families of those who have died of Covid-19.
During the second wave of Covid in India, Madhura Dasgupta Sinha, a social entrepreneur from Mumbai, was raising money for a classmate, a 50-year-old engineer, who was positive for Covid and needed critical care. Unfortunately he died, but his classmates wanted his family to have the funds they had raised.
When Madhura asked his wife which account they should be crediting the funds to, she said she didn’t know if she had a bank account. “There was no knowledge in the family about what to do financially when tragedy strikes, but this wasn’t the time to teach her internet banking or financial prudence,” says Madhura, 51, a former banker.
Seeing this, Madhura launched Not Alone, a campaign to help women who had lost their families’ only bread winners to the pandemic. After the launch, it saw a huge increase in volunteers from India and the Indian diaspora who wanted to help.
There are about 100 women in the community. Many are struggling with their mental health. Madhura and her team of volunteers have seen cases of depression, survivors’ guilt, and even suicidal tendencies. Others are struggling to make ends meet.
“Some of these women are facing inheritance issues, for others the in-laws do not allow her to stay in the marital home. Sometimes the deceased member’s job makes a generous deal, but they find they have new relatives coming down on them.” . says Madura.
“Many are struggling to pay their children’s school fees. In one case, the person didn’t know how the insurance works and still paid the premium after her husband died.”
The main cause, he adds, is poor financial literacy. Globally, 35% of men are financially literate compared to 30% of women, according to a 2015 survey by the rating agency Standard and Poor’s (S&P). But in India, financial literacy is lower and the gender gap is wider, with 27% of men financially literate compared with 20% of women.
Madhura and her team encourage women to return to work, but some are not ready. For such cases, bereavement counseling becomes a priority and the process is not linear. Sometimes, weeks of emotional progress are delayed by a simple trigger that can come in the form of an image or a fragment of conversation.
Those who are ready are slowly being pushed into employment and receiving career guidance and support. Many of the women have projects that they are passionate about and volunteers help grow them into small businesses.
Some start-ups have even approached Madhura saying they actively want to hire from this community, and 12 women have already found their first job and more are in the pipeline.
With the right support, Madhura’s classmate’s wife managed to open a bank account. He received some funding from supporters, but he needed a sustainable source of income. Madhura and her team wanted to help her, but they found a roadblock. Although she was offered a job, her classmate’s wife refused, saying she was too emotionally drained. Madhura waited patiently, and finally one day she called back.
“Now he’s investing wisely, he’s learned internet banking, and he’s set up remittances for his daughter’s education. It’s all very small things, but it’s a big win for us.”
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