A digital saviour for Covid widows

Courtesy: Instagram (covidwomenhelp)
Courtesy: Instagram (covidwomenhelp)

Widowed by the second wave, thousands of Indian women have been given a helping hand by an Internet-based employment initiative.

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By Sanchita Guha

Published: Fri 11 Jun 2021, 9:54 PM

Last updated: Tue 6 Jul 2021, 2:18 PM

For some weeks now, Delhi resident Anita Kapoor (name changed) has been trying to restart her career, honing her CV, looking at job postings that match her skills, and preparing for interviews. That’s a perfectly normal thing for a modern woman living in Indian’s bustling capital city to do. However, the new normal isn’t quite like the old normal, is it? Anita is 60, an age when most people hope to put their feet up comfortably, with enough in the financial portfolio to cover their needs for a good 25-30 years. But those golden years turned out to be a mirage for Anita, when Covid claimed her businessman husband in December 2020. This sudden end has left her with a business she feels she can’t run alone and finances he didn’t have the time to organise.

Anita’s story, if it were to be depicted visually, would be part of a massive collage featuring thousands of women who are India’s “Covid widows”. Most of them are now staring at years, even decades, of having to make ends meet on their own. Many have children — the younger the child, the greater the financial responsibility. In a country with absolutely no social welfare and emergency government support for the middle class, these women have been cut adrift from their familiar life by a pandemic that has left the world shell-shocked.

But since May 11, a firm helping hand has been extended to them; it’s what they need much more than the standard “thoughts and prayers” that most people send. With the motto “Rise Again”, Yudhvir Mor, vice-president of the software company Zuora, launched the initiative Covidwidows.in, an online platform, where bereaved women can register themselves, get a mentor-counsellor, and comprehensive support on finding employment. As of now, Covidwidows.in has more than 7,000 volunteers and some 2,000 registered women who need support. The initiative has reached out to corporate entities around India, created a database of hundreds of vacancies, and has begun matching jobs with the widows as potential employees.

Explaining the idea behind this, Yudhvir says, “When I saw people struggling for medical supplies, oxygen, hospital beds, it bothered me that I couldn’t do anything to help anyone. I started thinking, ‘What exactly can I help with?’” From this thought, emerged this online platform, first publicised through the professional social network LinkedIn.

A purely volunteer-driven initiative, Covidwidows.in takes advantage of the digital era, in which a person’s physical location is no hindrance to her getting help from a mentor in another city. Their employment prospects do differ, depending on which city they’re based in and how lively the job scene there is. Aside from the Covid Widows database, the volunteers, who are from various professional spheres, are tapping their own contacts to add vacancies to the database and expand the potential placement pool.

‘You need to hit the iron when it’s hot’

Before making any career moves, comes the process of dealing with the grief, the steeling of the mind, and finding the right kind of motivation to move forward and rebuild a life. For Anita, a customer care executive at Amex until 2015, that motivation is her desire to remain independent and not seek any financial help from her adult children (one of them lives overseas) — especially in these times of income uncertainty for everyone. Her professional background is of immense help, but for many others, going out in the job market is like sailing into uncharted waters with only a rudimentary knowledge of steering the ship.

Nonetheless, they’re grateful to have someone by their side and are determined to make the most of it. Vibhuti Sharma, emotional intelligence coach and leadership facilitator based in Bengaluru, who has been mentoring several Covid widows, speaks of “how resilient women are” and how they’re trying to find the strengths they can play to in the employment market. Some are aware that their educational qualifications may not stretch to an office job, but they believe they’d do well as entrepreneurs, running a small business with other women like them.

As a mentor, Vibhuti encourages the women to take the opportunities that come their way, citing the wisdom that there’s no time like now: with Covid deaths still making daily headlines in India, companies are very sympathetic towards the widows, very willing to hire and also offer flexibility to accommodate their changed circumstances; that may not be the case six months down the line. “When I talk to these women, I know they’re under a lot of pressure, experiencing a lot of grief, and I tell them, ‘You will have a lifetime to grieve, to think about what you want to do, but this is the time when you need to hit the iron when it’s hot.’ Organisations are reaching out to us and saying, ‘Give us the people, and we’ll do the rest.’ These companies are now willing to invest in the widows, to hold [training] boot camps, to do everything they can to bring them on board. And I’ve been telling the women, ‘Don’t lose this opportunity, because you may not get it again’.”

Anita’s mentor Seema Parikh, who worked in the pandemic-hit travel and aviation sector until recently, was just a week old in the Covidwidows.in initiative when she spoke to Khaleej Times. One of the widows she’s hand-holding lost her husband and had her baby in the same month, April 2021, and has now registered herself as a job-seeker. “I’ve spoken to people who’ve lost their husbands as recently as 10-12 days ago, and yet they’re taking charge of their lives; at the same time, it is such a sad thing to prepare for [a job], because you can’t even grieve for the person you’ve just lost,” says Seema, now based in Delhi. “It’s such a traumatic time for them, but [they] have to be strong for their family, their kids.”

‘Heartening to see so many people coming forward to help’

Vidya Ravi from Delhi and Sonali Chakraborty from Barrackpore, near Kolkata, are two women who’ve found support through this initiative, and both have a son to put through school. The cause of their bereavement is very similar, but their current situations are quite different.

Vidya’s previous work as a special educator in the NGO sector in Mumbai (where she lived before her marriage) and content-related freelance assignments that she took on afterwards have given her some marketable skills. She is looking to upskill further by enrolling in courses, hoping to achieve a degree of independence with the support of her in-laws.

Sonali’s two Master’s degrees in music and Bengali have not yet been applied at a workplace, but she is absolutely certain that she has to make a go of it, based on her experience as a home tutor. The roof on her head literally depends on finding a job, burdened as she is now with a hefty housing loan that hadn’t been insured before she lost her husband, a senior school teacher.

The speed with which Covidwidows.in reached out to them and the sincere engagement of their mentors have left both of them impressed. The fact that strangers out there have devised concrete plans for connecting them to viable employment, and are working to lift them up from a distressing situation, has come as a booster dose of hope.

“It’s heartening to see so many people coming forward to help,” says Vidya. “I’ve been having conversations with people, I’ve never met them or spoken to them before, but they’re there for you, and ready to do so much, even go out of their way to do things [for you]. That really strengthens me and puts me back on my feet… I’m overwhelmed and thankful.”

The independent income that Vidya always strived for, even when her husband was alive, has now become a necessity. Her young son, now aged eight, will need her complete support for many years and she’s set on pulling her own weight in managing the household expenses. The job — or the process of getting one — is also a “coping strategy” that keeps her mind off her enormous loss.

With some interviews lined up, she’s moving forward with a sense of optimism. Her little boy is used to seeing his mother working from home, making that aspect of her career-building less of a problem. “He knows that there are times when mom has to work,” she says.

Sonali recalls her first conversation with Seema, in which the latter took note of the widow’s skills and interests and promised to try and find a match in the Covidwidows.in database of available jobs. This outreach is a bright ray of hope for one who has been searching nonstop for a job ever since her husband passed away more than five months ago. Her son, now 14, is her rock at the moment, assisting her in her job-hunt and technology use.

The teenage son and her own parents now form the widow’s chief support system. Her late husband’s family has turned away from her, blaming her for not putting him in an expensive private hospital for his treatment, an extra expense that the Chakraborty couple could not afford. Their antipathy hurts, but Sonali has no energy to spare for anything other than starting a career nearly two decades behind freshers.

Though her hurdles are many, well-wishers are appearing, too. “I’ve begun communicating with a lot of people, including my counsellor Seema. Some of them — people I had never known earlier — are motivating me and helping me with job leads and advice on job-hunting,” says Sonali. “My confidence level is decidedly higher now than when I started out on this road. My old life is behind me; in this new one, I must make it, for the sake of my son. I feel that the combined effort of so many people, their goodwill, will bring me the result that I desperately need.”

‘Their drive to get back on their feet is so strong’

The stories that the volunteer mentors hear from the women they support make a deep impact on them; in some ways, it makes them see life in a new light. Vibhuti, who joined the initiative after spotting the first LinkedIn post, talks of getting “goosebumps” during some of her conversations with the women under her care, who look upon their mentor as a new sister. That bond is a powerful propelling force.

“Their drive to get back on their feet is so strong, to take care of their small children and also to avoid becoming financially dependent. I’m personally extremely invested in this whole initiative, and am ready to do whatever it takes,” says Vibhuti. People in her professional network, too, have offered help without being asked. “For me, this has become the most fulfilling work I’ve done in my life. I feel I’ve become a partner in their journey, and it’s helping me to create some good karma… I feel fortunate that I’ve been given this opportunity to add some value to these women’s lives.”

Seema says her experience with this initiative is likely to turn her career in a new direction. “I want to now work with an NGO, where I can continue to help people in the best way that I can. This is something you become passionate about. When you’re so totally impacted by something, it brings out that other aspect you didn’t even know existed inside you,” she says.

Following a very close brush with Covid — her husband had the infection; most fortunately, he recovered — Seema saw many small acts of kindness at the hospital, where patients’ family attendants and even the non-medical staff looked out for each other. When her husband was better and discharged, she decided to do some work where she could directly help Covid-affected people. Covidwidows.in caught her eye when Bollywood star Kareena Kapoor shared the initiative’s social media post on Instagram, immediately amplifying its reach.

Seema has been deeply moved by her talks with the widows. “It’s not just a professional conversation; it’s very personal. We hear about what they went through, their pain… And sometimes, I can’t hold back my own tears when the woman at the other end is crying; I can’t think of how to console her, because I’m so far away.” This has only strengthened her resolve to go out into the world and do more for society.

The life-changing event that the pandemic has been has brought much sorrow, but it has also brought the community together and spread hope in ways that no one thought was possible before. For the Covid widows, the one great learning from this is that in one’s darkest hour, one is not alone.

(Sanchita is a journalist based in India.)

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