India's Covid-19 widows struggling to join workforce

Mrs Anuradha Roy, who has been widowed, with her husband Kaushik and their children when they holidayed in February. When Mr Ravi Kumar, the sole breadwinner of his family, died on May 13 from Covid-19, he left behind his wife Sonia and their four ch
Mrs Roma Sharma and her son Mishon outside their house in Utter Pradesh. Mrs Sharma lost her husband Sri Kant Sharma to Covid-19 on May 8. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Mrs Anuradha Roy, who has been widowed, with her husband Kaushik and their children when they holidayed in February. When Mr Ravi Kumar, the sole breadwinner of his family, died on May 13 from Covid-19, he left behind his wife Sonia and their four ch
When Mr Ravi Kumar, the sole breadwinner of his family, died on May 13 from Covid-19, he left behind his wife Sonia and their four children. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Mrs Anuradha Roy with her husband Kaushik Roy and two children from their last holiday in February this year. ST PHOTO: ANURADHA ROY

NEW DELHI - Five months ago, Mrs Anuradha Roy and her husband Kaushik, in their late thirties, along with their two children, moved into a new home in Noida, a satellite township of the Indian capital.

There was the excitement of new beginnings as Mr Roy, a technical architect, had plans to become an entrepreneur and launch a start-up dealing with artificial intelligence.

But those dreams were dashed when India's second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic left Mrs Roy a widow.

Even before she could come to terms with her tragic loss, the mother of a five-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl has had to contend with managing a household that suddenly has only one income instead of two.

Mrs Roy, who holds a master's degree in computer applications and works as a talent acquisition consultant in an IT firm, signed up with a website called Covid Women Help, after chancing upon a social media post by Bollywood actress Kareena Kapoor.

The initiative aims to help widows find new or better jobs using a network of volunteers in the corporate world, among others.

"For two months, I will continue in my current position. In between, I will enhance my skills and I will get something better," she told The Straits Times, adding that she still had difficulty coming to terms with what happened.

"My husband seemed to be fine on May 3 and then was gone the next day. How will I understand what happened?"

India saw a devastating second wave in which its healthcare infrastructure came under immense pressure with hospital beds, medicine and oxygen in short supply. During the peak, the country was registering more than 400,000 cases and over 4,000 deaths daily. On Saturday (June 5), 120,529 new Covid-19 cases were registered.

Thousands of families have been plunged into grief and some 3,000 women have signed up through the website to get jobs or look for better paying ones, said its founder Mr Yudhvir Mor, country manager of a United States software firm.

He launched the website on May 11, and it now has 8,000 volunteers who are using their contacts to find jobs for the women.

"Seven or eight people have got confirmed offers and there are 200 plus resumes given to companies and interviews are happening. The real power of the idea is that it is (built) around volunteers who are going to any extent to help the person find a job," said Mr Mor.

"A lot of people have reached out to us and to be frank, we are still scratching the surface... the kind of death toll, the issue is much bigger. So I have been really working on how to reach out to smaller cities and villages."

India already has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, women accounted for a mere 10.7 per cent of the workforce from 2019 to 2020, with the pandemic further putting stress on working women.

Issues such as lack of childcare options, reduced mobility and concerns about safety keep Indian women at home.

Mrs Shailza Gandhi Gidwani, 43, was looking after the home while her husband was taking care of their business. But on Jan 10, everything changed after her husband Manish Gidwani, 40, succumbed to Covid-19. After a gap of some years, she is now back in the workforce and taking care of the business he ran.

"I was devastated and was in my cocoon for days and months. I couldn't come to terms with the fact that I have lost him. I was totally dependent on him. We were doing pretty fine. Overnight, this life got twisted," said Mrs Gidwani, who is also battling cancer.

Mrs Shailza Gandhi Gidwani and her husband Manish Gidwani and her daughter. PHOTO: SHAILZA GANDHI GIDWANI/FACEBOOK

"I was actually crying all the time. Then one fine day, my daughter, who turned 12 in March, walked up to me and said, 'You are not the same mother that I used to have. You don't sit with me. You don't talk to me.' And that hit me: If I alienate myself, who would raise her?"

So she picked herself up and started managing her husband's travel business, which has also been badly hit by the pandemic. She is hopeful the business will pick up as the second wave ebbs but is resigned to the fact that for now, things are difficult.

"All our savings were drained in 2020. I'm living on insurance (taken out by my husband) and my mother is helping me," she told The Straits Times.

"It is very hard (to take over my husband's business). I see him everywhere in the work he has done and the e-mails he has left behind (for clients)."

For some widows, going back to work is not an option, plunging their families into even greater uncertainty.

Ms Vallari Sharma has been unable to communicate much since the death of her husband Arvind Kumar, an award-winning school teacher, on April 30.

"She is very depressed. She is not sharing anything. So I thought I should not force her. She will take her time. I am just giving her space," said her daughter Shambhavi, 25, who was preparing for exams that she must pass to get a banking job.

Ms Vallari Sharma, who is in blue dupatta and purple kurta, with her two daughters and husband Arvind Kumar. ST PHOTO: ARVIND KUMAR

"Our biggest fear is how we will manage and what happens. Everything is shattered."

Her father died after failing to get oxygen in time.

The Delhi government has announced some compensation, but worries remain over how the family will make ends meet. Her mother, who was also a school teacher, stopped working because of health issues a few years ago.

"I don't know what to think and do each day," said Ms Shambhavi.

"It is very difficult for us. We are shattered."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.