Taruna Arora lost her husband Rajeev to Covid-19 two days before his 50th birthday.
Rajeev became infected with the virus in April, during India’s devastation from the second Covid wave. Medical resources were limited, hospitals were overcrowded, and his family worked hard to get him admitted. They eventually found a hospital bed in a government-run makeshift facility, but he died two weeks later.
“Rajeev’s death has left me speechless. These are the darkest days of my life, but I don’t have time to mourn because my life has taken a 180-degree turn “Taruna, 46, says Rajeev, who worked in the telecommunications industry, was the family’s sole breadwinner and made the majority of the financial decisions. Taruna is now relying on their savings and her limited financial knowledge to support their two children.
“We always lived comfortably, and I got everything I wanted. He did all of the budgeting, and all I had to do was ask for money. I’m not sure how long our savings will last because I’ve never managed them before “Taruna says
She wants to work to support her children, but she has no work experience and doesn’t know where to begin. “I just want to get a job, get out of the house, meet new people, and share a cup of tea. When I’m at home, the pain prevents me from sleeping.”
India has been one of the worst-affected countries in terms of Covid, with over 440,000 official deaths so far. Tens of thousands of women have been widowed as a result of the pandemic, and they are struggling to adjust to their new lives.
Many of these women have never worked in a paying job before. According to the World Bank, India’s female labour force participation rate – which was less than 21% in 2019 – is one of the lowest in the world.
Many have lost the sole bread winner of their families, and as their worlds changed overnight, they are struggling to manage the double burden of grief and financial difficulties. Gender roles and patriarchal norms at home mean they were financially dependent on their male partners and have been excluded from financial services.
In 2017, Indian women were nearly 13% less likely than men to be able to raise funds in case of an emergency, according to the World Bank. Indian women were also 6% less likely than men to have a bank account – a problem that’s only made worse by the fact that Indian women are also significantly less likely than men to own a mobile phone or use mobile internet.
This makes it more difficult for women like Taruna to obtain compensation, such as the recent announcement by the Indian government to pay 50,000 rupees ($674; £500) to the families of Covid-19 victims.
During India’s second Covid wave, Madhura Dasgupta Sinha, a Mumbai-based social entrepreneur, was raising funds for a classmate, a 50-year-old engineer who was Covid positive and required critical care. Unfortunately, he died, but his classmates wanted his family to receive the funds they had raised.
When Madhura asked his wife which account the funds should be credited to, she replied that she didn’t know if she had a bank account. “There was no knowledge in the family about what to do financially when tragedy struck, but this was not the time to teach her internet banking or financial prudence,” says Madhura, a 51-year-old ex-banker.
Seeing this, Madhura launched Not Alone, a campaign to assist women who had lost their families’ sole breadwinners due to the pandemic. She noticed a significant increase in volunteers from India and the Indian diaspora after the launch.
In the community, there are approximately 100 women. Many people are dealing with mental health issues. Madhura and her volunteer team have witnessed cases of depression, survivor’s guilt, and even suicidal ideation. Others are having difficulty making ends meet.
“Some of these women are dealing with inheritance issues, while others are being barred from remaining in the marital home by their in-laws. Sometimes the deceased member’s workplace will make a generous settlement, but they will discover that they have newfound relatives descending on them “Madhura explains.
“Many parents are unable to pay their children’s school fees. In one case, the person had no idea how insurance worked, but she continued to pay the premium even after her husband died.”
The root cause, she adds, is poor financial literacy. Globally, 35% of men are financially literate compared to 30% of women, according to a 2015 survey by ratings 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 to 20% of women.
Madhura and her team encourage the women to re-enter the labour force, but some are unable to do so. Grief counselling becomes a priority in such cases, and the process is not linear. Weeks of emotional progress can be halted by a simple trigger, which can take the form of a picture or a snippet of conversation.
Those who are ready are gradually nudged toward employment and given career guidance and support. Many of the women are passionate about their projects, and the volunteers help them grow into small businesses.
Some start-ups have even approached Madhura, expressing a strong desire to hire from this community, and 12 women have already found their first jobs, with more on the way.
Madhura’s classmate’s wife was able to open a bank account with the right assistance. She received some donations from well-wishers, but she needed a steady source of income. Madhura and her team wanted to assist her but ran into a stumbling block. Despite being offered a job, her classmate’s wife declined, claiming she was too emotionally exhausted. Madhura patiently waited, and one day she called back.
“She is now wisely investing, has learned internet banking, and has established remittances for her daughter’s education. These are all minor details, but they add up to a big win for us.”