Widows in India should be brought under the ambit of social security schemes to improve their condition and boost their dignity, says UN Women chief

Customs and traditions are often invoked to marginalise and isolate widows in the society. Being called inauspicious, widows are often isolated and relegated to the status of unwanted insiders who carry the stigma all their life and live in extreme poverty.

“First because they are women and second being widows, such women encounter heightened discrimination. So we need to address the issues of widows and their condition as part of gender equality and empowerment agenda,” Lakshmi Puri, acting Head of UN Women, told The Hindu during her recent visit to India.

Pointing out that rough estimates suggest there are 44 million widows in India, Ms. Puri said specific programmes, including social protection schemes, should target widows. “To begin with, we need exact data to establish the exact issues widows face and how we can help them,” she added.

The UN Women has been helping widows access social security like participating in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, uptake of social protection schemes like Indira Gandhi National Widow Pension Scheme and now Direct Benefit Transfer scheme so that widows live in dignity.

“We are also working on other social security programmes. If women do not know about their entitlements or feel inhibited or are prevented from accessing, it is the biggest challenge,” Ms. Puri said. It is such a huge target group that most of the States find it difficult to contribute even Rs. 300 per month for each woman. But more than money, what is important it gives them some dignity, she explained.

As of now, UN Women is implementing a three-year-programme starting from 2011 in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal, funded jointly by it and the Swiss National Committee of Women. The aim is to reduce social ostracism of women, and mainstream widows’ issues into the national discourse.

“We are also in partnership with civil society organisations and supporting government institutions at the grass roots levels to help widows become agents of change and access their entitlements with dignity,” according to Ms. Puri.

Loomba Foundation is one such organisation which is collaborating with the UN Women to help widows across the world. There are religious widows, farm widows, those widowed because of HIV/AIDS, war widows, widows in conflict areas and child widows — a major issue in India.

Supported by Loomba Foundation, the UN Women is also working with widows in India, Malawi and Guatemala. “The work basically involves economic empowerment but linked strongly to prevention of violence against women as the two are connected,” according to Ms. Puri.

Advocating setting up of widow help centres, she appreciated India for allocating Rs. 200 crore in the annual Budget for the welfare for single women and widows.

The recently concluded meeting of the Commission on Status of Women (CSW) also passed a resolution calling for ending violence against women in different settings and categories, including widows, differently-abled, those affected with HIV/AIDS and indigenous people.

“The CSW meeting was historic in the sense it had the participation of over 6,500 civil society groups and 2,000 government representations attended mostly by ministers. Of the 300-odd events, there were six or seven dedicated to widows,” Ms. Puri said. The UN has declared June 23 as International Widows Day.

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