When 35-year-old Pooja Sharma lost her husband Manmohan to COVID-19 during India’s second deadly wave, she was devastated.
“After a few days of fighting COVID-19, my husband realized that he would not make it,” says Sharma. “He asked me to take care of our daughters, then he left me alone in the world.”
Manmohan, who died on April 17, was the main provider for his family. He had a job taking people to custom clothing stores. Without him, Sharma, who lives in Delhi, wasn’t sure how she and her two daughters, ages 12 and 14, would live. He didn’t have a job and couldn’t read. And she was an orphan, so she had no parents who could help her.
Indian media are calling women like Sharma “COVID widows”. These are women who have lost their spouse, often the sole breadwinner, during the pandemic. These widows are burdened with additional financial burdens, such as hospital bills, as they mourn the loss of their partner. The government and nonprofit groups are now trying to support these women, especially those with low incomes, but researchers say that is not enough.
India has had more than 30 million COVID-19 cases and 411,000 deaths. More than 200,000 of those deaths occurred only during the second wave, which began in April and peaked in May.
It’s hard to measure how many women have been widowed during this second wave, she says Rupsa Mallik, Director of Programs and Innovations at CREA (Resource Creation for Empowerment in Action), one of the largest women’s rights organizations in India. She works with women’s non-profit organizations throughout South Asia and has been following the situation of the COVID widow from India. “There is no data on the number of COVID widows in this country,” he says.
The national government does not provide gender-specific data on COVID deaths. But some states of India, including Bangalore other Pune, have data showing that the death rate during the second wave of India in their regions has affected more men, who could be husbands, fathers and breadwinners, than women.
Knowing how many COVID widows there are in India is crucial for groups that want to help them, Mallik says. “How can a policy be oriented towards a sector of society if data are not available?”
Cash aid to the rescue?
Despite the lack of information, national and local governments are establishing programs to help these women.
On May 30, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that his administration would implement measures to protect families who had lost their primary income member, regardless of gender, to COVID. That includes a pension equal to 90% of the deceased person’s average daily salary, as well as insurance benefits. Eligible citizens can request payments now.
Several Indian state governments are also collaborating. Navi Mumbai City Municipal Organization, the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation, announced in June that COVID widows would receive a one-time compensation of about $ 2,020 plus about $ 1,346 for any equipment that can be used for self-employment, such as a sewing machine to start a tailoring business. And the state of Assam announced in June that it would provide one-time financial assistance of approximately $ 3,357 to COVID widows. These are modest sums: In India, a family living below the poverty line typically has an annual income of about $ 2,416.
Mallik says that cash can be useful for very poor families who have lost their breadwinner, but there are several concerns. “For a really disadvantaged family with low levels of literacy, it is very likely that the male members of the family will try to take control of the money. In patriarchal households, there will definitely be some appropriation of money.”
To qualify for government support, widows must show a marriage certificate and a death certificate stating that the cause of death was COVID. That creates another hurdle, Mallik says. “Even when deaths are recorded, they may not be recorded as COVID deaths” due to factors such as poor record keeping. “So disadvantaged families cannot access financial assistance.”
Job training to survive
Widows, especially those from the poorest backgrounds, need more than cash, he says Parmod Kumar, director of the Institute for Social and Economic Change, a Hyderabad-based think tank that helps women in rural areas through agricultural development.
Nonprofits now provide a variety of resources for COVID widows, Mallik says. “They are filling in the gaps in areas where the government is lacking.” That includes grief counseling and mental health services.
But there is also an urgent need for practical support, which is also provided by charities. “COVID widows need to be independent,” says Kumar. “They need to start working if they want to support their families. Train these widows [through job training] it will help them in the long run. “
Sharma now works with a non-profit group called Tingle, which helps hundreds of women in Delhi use their household skills like sewing and knitting to make handicrafts like aprons, masks, toys and earrings. These elements are displayed on the group’s Instagram and Facebook account; customers, mainly in India, can order directly from a website.
“All proceeds from the items go to the women,” says Simran Kaur, founder of Pins and Needles.
In recent months, the group has reached out to dozens of COVID widows. For women like Sharma, the show was a lifesaver. “After my husband died, it seemed like my world was over,” she says. “Who was going to give a poor, uneducated woman like me a job? I thought about taking my life because I couldn’t think of a way to take care of my daughters.
Sharma makes about $ 60 a month selling her crafts. While she is grateful for the money, she wishes she could earn more. When her husband was alive, he contributed up to $ 240 a month for his family. That put them just below India’s poverty line, but it was enough to bring them out, he says.
Still, Sharma says that work makes her feel a little more secure living alone. But nothing can replace her late husband Manmohan, she says. He was the love of her life.
His family did not approve of Sharma because she was an orphan, but he married her anyway. That’s how much I wanted to be with her.
Wiping her tears, she says, “I miss my husband.”
Agnee Ghosh is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata, India, who has written for South China Morning Post, The balloon and the mail other Atmos. Follow her on twitter @agnee__.