More than 30,000 children have been orphaned in India and many women have become widows in the course of the brutal COVID-19 pandemic. The full figures on how many women have been widowed or how many have lost their spouses in the pandemic have not been declared by the Central government. But the scary fact is that many around us seem to be losing their loved ones untimely.
Till date, work was being carried out on the experiences of widows of farmers, widows of soldiers, widows of HIV/AIDS patients, and their rights. We know about widows of Maharashtra farmers, widows of Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh, widows who lost their spouses to tiger attacks in West Bengal, half-widows of Kashmir. Now, a new category of 'Covid widow' has been added to this tragic series.
During the lockdown, a visit to Aurangabad, Jalna and Ahmednagar districts of Maharashtra for relief work, the untold tragedy of women who became widows due to COVID became evident. Below is a short account of their experiences and how they are coping with the devastation brought on by the pandemic.
In all, 17 women discussed the pain they experienced after losing their husbands due to COVID-19. Among these, 15 women were in the age group of 25-45 years and the remaining two were above 45 years. Most of them were barely literate, but two were graduates. They worked as domestic labourers, farm labourers, and some worked in the private sector to support the family. These women did not get back the work that was stopped during last year's lockdown.
In April, during the second wave, Varsha’s husband passed away due to Covid-19. Fifteen years had passed since her marriage. Her family consists of in-laws and a son. Her late husband was a worker in a private company, as was Varsha. But she lost her job during last year’s lockdown, which she has been unable to get back yet. The flat (one room-kitchen) was purchased five years ago. The family was somehow meeting the responsibilities of paying home loan instalments, additional spending on mobile phone and internet since the education of the son started online, along with the medical expenses of the sick father-in-law. Her husband’s company had cut salaries due to the lockdown, causing immense financial stress. But things started getting worse quickly as her husband had a fever and then tested positive for COVID-19.
After two days of continuous efforts, the family finally found a hospital bed for Varsha’s husband. But he passed away the next day. Varsha said that her problems started at this point. She told Newsclick: “I got a call from the corporation, and my son and I went to the funeral. Mine and my son's test results came negative. Until the test reports of my in-laws came I was worried, but fortunately their test reports were also negative. The situation at the cemetery will never be forgotten. We came home from the cemetery. Neighbours helped us. I was being consoled. None of our relatives came to our house during this time. They used to just call and enquire. Fifteen days to three weeks later, my brother-in-law came home. At that time, I got a huge shock. My brother-in-law did not come inside my house. I was talking to him standing at the door. Meanwhile, my parents-in-laws packed up their belongings and started leaving with my brother-in-law. When I asked them what they were doing, they said, ‘Because of you, our son left us. He didn’t have any corona. Because he was rushed to the hospital, he died’.”
The in-laws left with the brother-in-law, saying that they could not stay with Varsha anymore. However, Varsha’s husband was a company worker and was tested at his workplace. Varsha said she was actually looking for support from her in-laws. “With my husband gone, I have no choice but to look for a job. My son is now in the tenth standard. His further education is pending. I thought, when I go out of the house to make a living, my in-laws would take care of my son. But now that they have left, it’s only me and my son at home. Eight days later, my brother-in-law came home again. I thought to myself, good at least he came to enquire about us, but it was my delusion. He said to me that this was his brother's house. As he was no longer alive, his parents had the right to it. So, I should leave this house at the earliest.”
In fact, Varsha is entitled to the house after the death of her husband. “All of this happened within a month of my husband passing away. I have worries about my son's education, home loan and how and when I will get a job. The biggest question is how to survive,” she said.
Ramabai: Isolated by Family
Ramabai, aged 70 years, has a big family of five daughters, five sons-in-law, three grandsons-in-law, a son and a daughter-in-law, a grandson and granddaughter-in-law living in the same city. Rama's husband was 80 years old, living with old age problems and high blood sugar. In March, he died within eight days of contracting COVID-19. The son and daughter-in-law also tested positive. Ramabai and her grandson performed the last rites of her husband. She expressed her heartache saying: “Our family is so big that if there is a marriage in the family, only family members amount to 150 people. But it's been three months since they found out that he (her husband) passed away due to corona, and no one has come to see us. Relatives who come to visit even avoided drinking water from our house. They met us at the door. Daughters do call. They can pay us a visit only if the sons-in-law bring them. If the going is good then everyone comes. There is so much uncertainty about human life.”
Sonali: Left Homeless
At age 35, Sonali lost her husband to COVID-19. She, her son and her husband were living in a rented house. After her husband dies, the landlord did not ask for rent for one month during the lockdown this year but insisted that she pays rent the next month. As she could not pay the rent, the landlord forced her to leave her belongings and vacate the house with her son. He told her that she would get back her belongings after paying the rent. Sonali is from another state and left her village in search of employment. Although she is currently staying temporarily at her friend's house who offered her shelter, the main question is how will Sonali be able to meet the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter for herself and her child.
Mansi: A Case of Sexual Abuse?
Mansi, 30, lost her husband due to COVID. Her in-laws and her one-year-old son stay with her. Mansi's mother-in-law strongly supported her but Mansi is devastated by the grief of losing her husband, raising a small child and worrying about how to earn a living. Added to that, she faced a strange persecution from the father-in-law. He started cracking obscene jokes, tearing her clothes with scissors in certain places. And if she wore other clothes, he forced her to wear torn clothes and spoke to her in abusive language. If Mansi’s mother-in-law opposed this, he used to beat and harass her. When someone from the neighbourhood came, he behaved very well, she said.
The mother-in-law decided to lodge a police complaint against her husband, as she did not want Mansi to suffer. When the two women went to the police station to lodge a complaint, the police allegedly disbelieved the mother-in-law, and countered her saying how could her husband harass the daughter-in-law at his old age. Mansi’s efforts to speak up were also allegedly silenced by the police who shamed her by claiming that she was mistreating her father-in-law. At last, the complaint was reported through an organisation.
Ashabai: Dumped Her Own
Similar experiences were narrated by women in several rural areas. Ashabai, aged 65, lost her husband 15 days after she tested positive for COVID-19. Hers is a large family with three sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. While the rest of the family tested negative and other people who came in contact with them also tested negative, the atmosphere in the house changed after Ashabai’s husband’s death.
“I was kept in a room. The sons started telling me that they will also be infected with corona due to Anna (their father). My sons said ‘your life is almost over but for us, we still have a lot to live for.’ My grandchildren were not allowed near me either,” she said, noting that it was barely a month after her husband had died. “In the second month, my kids dropped me off at the farm. I was told to stay here and do whatever I could in the field,” she said wiping her watery eyes and adding that he has been living alone for the last six months.
Aruna: The Struggle Continues
Aruna, aged 32 years, has a six-year-old son and is trying to go on with her life after losing her husband. The family had recently built a two-room house in the village. Aruna said, initially her husband got fever and was tested for COVID-19. Four days later, she got a call that his report was positive.
“We went to the village hospital. There was no facility for him to be admitted. After two days, in the taluka village, my brother-in-law got a bed in a private hospital and my husband was admitted. I sent my son to my mother. My mother-in-law was at home. I also tested positive but had no symptoms,” she said. Aruna was devastated as it was quite difficult to get a hospital bed for treatment. She was quarantined at home and started her treatment there.
“My brother-in-law was running around for my husband. There was no improvement in his condition. His oxygen level was declining. He was shifted to Aurangabad. Even there it was very difficult to get a bed. He got a bed late at night but we got a call the next morning that my husband had passed away. It was a big shock for me,” she added.
Aruna further said, “I am worried about my child's future. My husband used to work in the ayurvedic treatment centre where they gave me a job. So, as of now, at least I am a bit less worried since I have a job at hand.” She highlighted the stigma prevalent regarding COVID-19 in the rural areas of the state. “There are many misconceptions about this disease in our village. Neighbours avoid talking to us. Relatives are estranged. It is depressing but I look at my son and will start working again,” she said.
Government help is needed for employment for women widowed due to COVID, implementation of food security scheme, and for raising their children. At the same time, it is imperative for women to unequivocally get all rights to their maternal and marital properties. Some state governments have announced financial help for widows, including Assam, Odisha, Bihar, and Rajasthan. There is need for such concrete decisions to be taken by the Central and other state governments as well. However, the COVID widows should not only be given government benefits, but should also get a share of property from their maternal and marital families. In addition, there is a need to provide employment opportunities for these women.
In our country, low level of girl's education, lack of education in rural and tribal areas, big influence of stereotypes, ignorance, sexism, and patriarchal culture prevail. Thus, the nature of women's issues in the society and the issue of COVID widows are worrisome. The fight that a widow has to take on in the patriarchal society during the pandemic is even more frightening.
Meanwhile, the physical and mental health of these women are being neglected, their children's problems, their financial, social, emotional issues, and sexual abuse are making a huge impact on their lives. The treatment of women at their marital and maternal homes, with mockery, denial of property and land rights, being forced to live away from children, living in unbearable pain in old age have become graver and darker due to COVID.
The women's issues emerging here underline that most of them are not safe in their homes. Two years have passed since the preliminary draft of the Single Women's Policy was submitted to the Maharashtra state government. It is high time this was adopted for the empowerment of single women.
Note: The names of the women in the article have been changed to protect their identities.
(The author is the state coordinator of the Committee on Single Women's Policy.)