When 45-year-old Sulochana from Arumanoor first heard of a meeting of the Kerala Vidhava (widow) Sangham a few weeks ago, she did not know what to expect. She had lost her husband almost a decade ago and depended on odd jobs to run her family. The widow pension from the panchayat is “not dependable” as it arrives once in several months.

“Ever since the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) started, there has been some stability. But the bank loan I took to marry off my eldest daughter has made life a bit difficult. When I heard about this vidhava sangham from a neighbour, I thought it is a good way of getting in touch with those who are facing similar issues,” says Sulochana.

On Sunday, she was present at the Adhyapaka Bhavan, the venue of the meeting, along with six other widows from Arumanoor.

At least a few of the 300 widows who gathered here were unaware of their rights other than the widow pension. Sulochana could have saved some of her loan amount had she known about the Rs.10,000 grant that the government provides for the marriage of daughters of widows.

There had been some attempts in the past to form a collective of widows, but such forums faded into oblivion after a few meetings. The Kerala Vidhava Sangham, formed in Thrissur in 2012, has been gaining in strength ever since its formation.

42-lakh widows

“According to the 2010 figures of the Social Welfare Department, there are 42-lakh widows in Kerala, which is about 11.56 per cent of the population. But the government hardly ever considers them in policy formation. All they do is dole out token amounts as a kind of compromise. In Western countries, the governments behave with more responsibility by providing the widows with a source of regular income. The Sangham currently has close to 16,000 members and we have been functioning as a platform to voice the collective views of widows, who are otherwise scattered and disorganised,” says T.N. Rajan, State working chairman of the Sangham.

But why are men present at the top of a women’s organisation? “The governing body does not have any men. A handful of them who have been active in the social sphere for many years are part of an advisory committee, which serves as a guide when we have to raise our demands at the appropriate platform,” says D. Bindu, district president of the Sangham.

According to them, the major problem with the government’s programmes for widows is that all of it is spread over different departments.

“One of our major demands to the government is the formation of a Widow Welfare and Development Corporation to integrate all the schemes for widows. This type of centralised fund allocation could solve the issue of delay in distributing pensions and other benefits. Also, a part of the plan fund in local bodies should be set aside for widows,” says Mr. Rajan.

They last received their monthly widow pension of Rs.700 during Onam.

“What is the use in getting the pensions once in a year? We get it together when we do not expect it. It is almost like a lottery,” says 50-year old Jaini from Vellarada.

The Sangham recently formed the Widow Development Co-operative Society. Now, they plan to form regional-level groups of 20 widows in the model of other self-hep groups.