The Widows’ Plight

People's Stories
Management Consultants Pvt. Ltd
25 February 2013

Providing knowledge and changing behaviour, and need to cater the social and
financial issues in the community

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Murlipahari village in Margomunda block of Deoghar district has a population comprising 367  households. The population consists of largely Muslims, and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled  Tribes. Lok Jagriti Kendra, an NGO based in Madhupur district, has been bestowed by the Global Sanitation Fund the responsibility of making the village open defecation free (ODF) and ensuring sustained behaviour change among people in toilet usage.

As part of its behaviour change strategy Lok Jagriti Kendra (LJK) has adopted many novel techniques, in particular, using sanitary messages in tandem with Islam’s religious teachings as a strategy to promote the use of toilets. It also stresses on the Muslim purdah system to bring focus on dignity of women and the shame of open defecation amongst women.

These methods have been effective to an extent and around 60 households were reported
to have well constructed temporary toilets. However, in spite of the rigorous efforts by the NGO, there remain certain barriers that prevent the village from adopting safe sanitation and hygiene practices. One such barrier is the social discrimination and maltreatment of widows and related vulnerabilities.

The hamlet of Bharsumia Tola in Murlipahari draws attention to the socio-economic barriers that affect widows, both old and young, in the community. Seen from the lens of India’s target of total sanitation, their individual stories reflect the need to address such issues in a comprehensive and focused manner.

Aelhi Devi is a 70 year old widow who shares home with her son and daughter-in-law. She became a widow ten years ago and has been ill treated by her family ever since. She is made to sleep in the animal shed opposite the house or on the ground outside the house and is often not fed properly.

The son and daughter-in-law have their own grievances in terms of finances and children to take care of, which refrain them from spending money on the elderly woman. Aelhi Devi feels shattered that after her
husband’s death there is nobody to take care of her. She is not financially independent and is dependent on her son and his wife for everything.

Lok Jagriti Kendra has taken all efforts to spread the message of sanitation and Aelhi Devi is well aware of it. She has the knowledge of health hazards related to open
defecation and wishes to use a toilet. Though her son has a fully equipped toilet in the house, Alehi Devi is restricted from using it as she is a widow and considered a burden to the family.

At her age, she walks about one to two kilometres everyday to practice open defecation. She is waiting for her widow’s pension so that she can make her own food and build her own toilet one day.

Another case of a widow in the village is 80 year old Rukmini Devi. She lost her husband more than a decade ago and now lives with her sons in the same house. Rukmini Devi is very fragile, has stiff limbs and needs support to walk.

The effective behaviour change strategy adopted by LJK has sensitized Rukmini Devi to the health hazards related to open defecation, and she therefore uses the temporary low cost toilet built in her house. Owing to her age and poor health, she finds it difficult to use the toilet as squatting at a very low level causes pain in her knees. She uses her walking stick for support but also wishes for a better arrangement so that the toilet is more comfortable for use. Rukmini Devi’s case is commendable indeed for an elderly widow who has brought in change in her behaviour at a very late stage in life and
wishes to sustain the behaviour.

 In the same village also lives 35 year old  Usha Devi, who lost her husband twelve  years ago. With the sudden demise of her family’s sole bread earner, the young widow was faced with the financial responsibility of herself and her three children.

Usha works in fields all day or engages in small construction activities to earn a meagre
amount of 50-60 rupees per day. With the constant rise in prices, she has difficulty in meeting their basic needs.

The local NGO has been able to make her aware of the consequences of open defecation but owing to her grave financial condition, she has not been able to build a toilet for herself. Usha walks a kilometre and half each day to practice open defecation. The social structure is such that Usha has refrained from seeking any monetary help from her brother-in-law who lives next door.

A need for a holistic intervention is observed from the cases mentioned here. While providing knowledge and changing behaviour, there is need to cater to the social and
financial issues in the community that often act as barrier in implementation and sustenance of the programme. The cases of Aelhi Devi and Usha Devi show that behaviour change strategies need to be further enhanced to tackle social perceptions related to widowhood and women’s victimization in a patriarchal system. Systemic challenges also need to redressed in such cases whereby widow pensions are easily available for women’s financial stability.

In the case of Rukmini Devi, a technological barrier is observed which may act as a hurdle in sustaining positive behaviour change. It is therefore important for agencies involved to provide various technological options while keeping the cost of toilets affordable. This will help to cater to the elderly population and make their access to toilets less cumbersome. Identifying such vulnerable households is crucial to advocating for technological options within Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan as well as realising gender and other equity issues within the programme.


About the author

These case studies have been commissioned by the Executing Agency,N.R. Management Consultants Pvt. Ltd., under the Global Sanitation Fund programme in India.The cases take stock of the lessons that emerge out of the interventions made by the Sub Grantees towards improving the sanitation and hygiene status in the project districts in the State of Jharkhand.

Last updated: Mon, 02/25/2013 - 12:20