No end to struggle for Covid widows in Maharashtra
Over 15,000 women in Maha lost their husbands, in most cases the primary earning member, to Covid; experts point at gender disparity in employment
Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, more than 15,000 women in Maharashtra have lost their husbands. Most deceased patients were primary earning members of their family, thereby exposing hundreds of families to financial constraints and forcing widows to knock on doors for help or raise money through crowdsourcing. Even children from some of these families are struggling to continue with studies due to monetary crisis at home. Social activists said this situation has once again revealed the gender disparity in the work culture in Indian society.
On April 18 this year, Nagpur resident Sunil Kundale, 43, succumbed to Covid-19, leaving behind his wife Deepali and two children —one-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son. Kundale worked as a manager in a local coaching centre. In the first week of April, he contracted Covid-19 and most of his savings were spent on hospital treatment which has now left the family penniless. Later, Dr Amit Thadhani, a surgeon in Mumbai, helped the family financially for their education.
Deepali who has no work experience is now hunting for a job amid the ongoing pandemic. “I have never worked before, so I don’t have work experience which is essential to get a job in this market. As most of the businesses are still in loss due to the pandemic, I am unable to get a job in small companies. I have just a few thousands left in my bank account to feed my family,” said Deepali. “We were living happily, but never did I know that this pandemic will turn our lives upside down,” she added.
In another instance, Sunita Mahate, 35, a resident of Beed, lost her husband Vishal to Covid in May. Within a few days, her father-in-law also succumbed to the infection. Now, the responsibility to take care of two children and an aged mother-in-law has fallen on her.
“My husband used to work in a factory in Nashik. However, last year due to the pandemic, the factory closed down and my husband became jobless. Then he started working with my father-in-law as a farmer here (Beed). This helped us to sustain through the first wave. But now as both of the breadwinners have died, I don’t know how to support my family,” Sunita said while sobbing.
The family has a debt of ₹32,000 from a local money lender who is pressuring her for the money. “I have a little gold which my father had given me during our marriage. I will have to sell it to pay the debt. I may also have to sell the farmland to feed my family, but I don’t know what I will do later,” she added.
Dr Zabird Hussain Usmani, Unani doctor from Cheeta Camp, Trombay, succumbed to Covid-19 on May 26, 2020. The 51-year-old doctor used to run a clinic in his locality and also worked with the government ambulance service — 108 — in the morning as an emergency doctor to attend to Covid-19 patients. He is survived by two children and a wife who is a homemaker.
After his death, the family went to their hometown in Uttar Pradesh as they didn’t have any money to sustain. To support the family financially, the eldest son Aadil, 18, decided to quit studies and start working to earn money for the family. But thankfully, in May, after almost a year of his father’s death, the state government paid the medical insurance amount of ₹50 lakh to the family.
“My mother is illiterate, so she wouldn’t have gotten a decent job to support us. So, I had decided to leave my studies to start working. I have a younger sister to support. After my father, they are my responsibility. But now, the compensation amount would help us to survive,” said Aadil.
In the past 18 months of the pandemic, it has been observed that men develop more health complications due to infection from Sars-CoV-2 — the virus that causes Covid-19 — than women. As of September 2, 3,857,202 men contracted the disease in the state compared to 2,626,373 women. The epidemiological findings reported across different parts of the world indicated higher morbidity and mortality in men than women.
As per the initial report available with the state woman and child development (WCD), as many as 15,124 women have lost their husbands in the pandemic. Another data provided by the department shows that in total 13,540 fathers lost their lives while 1,763 mothers succumbed to the infection in the state. Both the cumulative figures will rise further as the district-wise accumulation of the data is still under process.
Medical experts cited several factors behind the gender gap such as higher expression of angiotensin-converting enzyme-2 — receptors for coronavirus — in men than women, immunological differences and X chromosome. “Lifestyle differences also play a contributing factor, like higher levels of smoking and drinking among men compared to women. Also, it has been observed that women follow better preventive measures such as frequent handwashing, wearing of face masks, and stay-at-home orders. Though further studies are required to establish these possibilities,” said Dr Ramesh Bharmal, dean of BYL Nair Hospital.
Gender inequality in employment
Meanwhile, women’s rights activists raised the need to make women financially independent. As per the World Bank, 65% of women in India are literate as compared to 80% of men. India has among the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world with less than a third of women – 15 years or older –working or actively looking for a job.
Dr AL Sharada, director of non-profit organisation Population First, agreed. “Hefty medical bills really exhaust families of their savings. Many of the families from middle- and lower-income backgrounds don’t even have medical insurance. In such a situation, it drains off their incomes. There is no economic security net for women who are completely dependent on their husbands. Women need to be financially independent even after their marriages,” she said.
Aspire For Her (AFH), a social start-up, launched #NotAlone in May to support women from across the nation impacted by the loss of their spouses or parents due to Covid-19.
In response to an email, AFH said, “If women had been financially independent, then they would have been far more equipped to support themselves and their families. It would have definitely helped financially, but maybe the women also would not have felt so insecure.”
A spokesperson from AFH said women who have approached them for help come from diverse educational backgrounds like graduates and postgraduates. Many of these women have management, pharma and law degrees. There are a few who are qualified as teachers.
“We are conscious that each woman who has signed up with #NotAlone has reposed faith in us, even though she probably feels betrayed by everyone else, including her loved ones who left her behind. When we started out on this journey, we knew that we could not let her down,” said Reema Sen, co-founder of AFH and lead of #NotAlone.
Dr Sharada also highlighted that often homemakers are not well informed about their husband’s investments or savings. Many widows need hand holding as they were not involved in their husband’s business management.
“Financial independence also needs to include financial literacy. We have had cases where even working women are facing trouble in getting access to their husband’s assets because their names were not included in bank accounts, insurance nomination forms or there was no will,” read the response sent by the AFH.