In the process of empowering the members of the micro-credit self-help groups, a movement was launched under the banner ‘Movement for the Livelihood Rights of Widows & Deserted Women’. The movement had its birth at the International Women’s Day Conventions organized in March 2007.
The members of the Movement proposed that the following issues should be addressed by the Indian Government: (1) social ostracism of widows, (2) lack of legal protection of the rights of widows, (3) the social and cultural prejudices against widows such as they being looked down as (a) ‘public sex objects’, (b) ‘women who bring ill-omen’ (c) ‘women to be looked at with sympathy’, and (d) ‘women who have no right to live a dignified life’, and (4) livelihood concerns.
Within two years, the movement picked up momentum so quickly that in the 2008 International Women’s Day celebrations, the leaders of the movement gained confidence to shoulder the entire responsibility of organizing rallies and conventions. Moving a step further, toward the end of the conventions, they were emboldened to pass the following resolutions, which obviously had political resonance:
“We demand the Government a) to come out with a law as that of ‘SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act’ to protect widows from verbal and physical abuse, b) to evolve a Welfare Board to look into the problems of widows, c) to provide job opportunities to youth who come forward to marry widows, and d) to take care of the education of widows’ children living below the poverty line”.
The demands, affixed with signatures of the movement leaders, were duly sent to the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Minister of Social Welfare, Minister for Rural Development and Administration and the local District Collector.
Prior to the tsunami, as well as during and after the tsunami, widows were a totally neglected group both by society and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Their presence in large numbers and their unfortunate plight in Nagapattinam district became vivid to the Kalangarai team while collecting family data prior to distribution of relief materials to the tsunami survivors in different villages. Closer interactions with the widows opened the eyes of the team regarding the cultural and social ostracism thrust upon them for hundreds of years. Their plight obviously demanded from Kalangarai a long-term commitment in their journey towards emancipation.
As part of the initial work, the volunteers and the staff of Kalangarai identified widows in each of the 87 villages and collected all the basic information: their names, age, caste, individual photographs, number of children, other facts needed to make a brief case history of each woman, etc. Thus gradually the staff and the volunteers managed to identify 1638 widows and deserted (abandoned) women in five (Vedaranyam, Nagapattinam, Tharangambadi, Seerkali & Keevalur) out of seven taluks in Nagapattinam district. Following this work, all the women were formed into as many as 87 micro-credit self-help groups. Two leaders were elected for each group and a bank account was opened (joint account) in the names of the two elected leaders. Later, financial help was extended to all the 87 groups consisting of 1638 individuals through a revolving fund system. The widows are being animated with the help of sisters of St. Joseph of Lyons Congregation and 15 trained animators numbering.
Friends of Kalangarai is a non-profit organization in the U.S. that supports the community-based programs of Kalangarai. These programs include micro-credit self-help groups, skills training, children’s educational programs, and a community college. More than 1000 widowed and abandoned women and their families participate in these programs.