The Widows Of 26/11https://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/the-widows-of-26-11/

The Widows Of 26/11

A new study reveals how the terror attack has affected the lives of the wives of the deceased.

Saeeda Murrare Qureshi tries to hold back tears as she narrates how her eldest son often beats her up. He wants her to sell their modest 400-square-feet flat in Mumbra,Maharashtra. But for 43-year-old Saeeda,the house is the only “solace” left in her life,after her husband,a tourist guide from CST to Marine Lines,was killed in 26/11. She has filed an NC (non-cognizable offence) complaint against her son with the police in order to restrain him. Her youngest son,Sohail,on the other hand,started working after 26/11,at the age of 18,to support the family. “His salary hardly helps to meet ends. I wish I could work to ease his pressure,but my health doesn’t permit me. Sometimes,I cannot understand why this happened to us,” she says.

The Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS),Mumbai,has studied the cases of women like Saeeda,who were widowed by 26/11,in an attempt to understand how the tragedy has affected their lives. In a four-year study called “Wives to Widows: Trajectory of Recovery”,TISS has found that 22 out of 35 widows have shown significant mental distress and nearly 50 per cent are economically insecure. “Our findings show that factors like job forcefully taken away by the husband’s family,forceful eviction from joint families,the toll of working and taking care of the family and a patriarchal family system determining access to resources have significantly impacted their health and sustenance,” says Dr Jacquleen Joseph,associate professor with TISS.

The widows were compensated by the government,but the real problems started after the compensation. “With the compensation amount given by the state,I cleared debts,married off my daughter and bought a house,with the hope that in my husband’s absence,my children will have a small roof over their heads. Now,my eldest son wants me to sell the house and give him the money. When my son has deserted me,how do I expect anyone else to take care of me? I have no husband,no bank balance. If the house is also taken away,where will I go?” she asks.

But unlike Saeeda,the compensation money has not helped many in securing a permanent roof over their heads. Some like 29-year-old Guddidevi Kuswaha and 27-year-old Meeradevi Sahani were,instead,forced to leave the comforts of their homes after the tragedy. The two women,unrelated to each other,have forged a bond,as their lives followed similar paths after 26/11. They work in the same hospital in Varanasi,a job they took up after they lost their husbands to the terror attack. “We both had to suddenly take up multiple responsibilities. I didn’t even have time to grieve my husband’s death,” says Meeradevi. With no help from her husband’s family,the mother of three school-going children was forced to leave her village,Sauraha,in Basti,Uttar Pradesh. “I had to move out of my husband’s family and shift to Varanasi as I have three children and no savings,” says Meeradevi. The one room she lives in with her children has “only basic amenities”. It is not just insufficient money that bothers Meeradevi. As she has little education,she finds it difficult to keep up with the pressures faced by her children,aged five,eight and 10,at their school. Work is also affecting her health. “I often fall sick,but have no time to take care of myself. The work timings are erratic and the money is not enough to meet expenses,” she says.

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Guddidevi,who hails from Deoria district in Uttar Pradesh,had always led a sheltered life,till she was “confronted” with a host of responsibilities after her husband,an auto-rickshaw driver in Mumbai,was killed in 26/11. Soon after his death,Guddidevi went to Varanasi to work. “I work as a hospital attendant,” she says. She gets a nominal salary,and the monthly rent of her small,makeshift room alone is Rs 2,000. The dingy room,she says,has affected her health. “I am unable to adjust to these surroundings,” she says. She also feels quite lonely as “my children are too young,and I can’t share my sorrows with them”. The fact that she has a job has not gone down well with her in-laws,who have distanced themselves from her. “I have been left to fend for myself and the children,” she says.

In fact,the husband’s family has been a primary source of stress for many 26/11 widows. Whatever hopes compensation or a government job may have given them have been dashed by the patriarchal set-up. Shahnaz Khatoon,30,who lives in Thuranda village,Uttar Pradesh,rues that her father-in-law divided the compensation money given to her among several family members. “Even the panchayat tried to claim a part of it,” says the helpless mother of two.

Shahnaz wanted to take up a job to ensure a better life for her children. “But my husband’s family never allowed me. I have no say in anything,” she says. Such is the patriarchal nature of the village that Shahnaz has to take the permission of each family member even if she has to visit a doctor. “I can’t step out unaccompanied. I am not even allowed to have gynaecological problems as I am a widow,” says Shahnaz,who was treated for kidney stones and has since been unwell. Her husband had planned to bring her and their children to Mumbai once he had settled down. “But that never happened. November 26 took him away and with that,our dreams of living a better life,” she says.

The study also shows that around 40 per cent,or 14 out of the 35 women,have health problems. And some like Taitaeridevi Gupta,can’t afford to visit a doctor. A native of Jajala village,Ballia,Uttar Pradesh,Taitaeridevi has severe pain in her leg and can barely walk,but she is not sure about going to Mumbai for treatment as the “expenses will be too much”.

Her eldest son,who was given a job by the railways in Mumbai after 26/11,is now shouldering the responsibilities of the entire family. “He is 23 now. He wanted to study,but was forced to work. He now has to struggle to stay in an expensive city like Mumbai and take care of us. I don’t want to burden him further by going there,” she says. It has been over a year since her in-laws asked her and her children to leave the house as they “did not want to take up the responsibilities” of a son who had died.

“Before my husband was killed in the CST firing,we lived in Mumbai and shared a good relationship with his family. Now,that is a distant memory,” she says.

TISS has been reaching out to the widows by holding counselling sessions,skills training workshops and parenting sessions,and providing a sustenance amount to the families. “We are also addressing their health and psycho-social well-being,with funding from the Taj Public Service Welfare Trust. But it is difficult to reach out to women living outside Maharashtra,” says Kanchan Kanojia,programme officer,AAPTI (an avenue for psycho-social and therapeutic interventions),a TISS project.

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The project is looking at several options for Saeeda,for example,ranging from skills training to supporting an enterprise. “They have counselled my younger son as there’s a lot of pressure on him. They have also told me that they may provide me with sustenance for sometime. Though I am not yet sure whether I will be in a position to work,it is slightly reassuring that there’s someone who is looking out for us,” she says. As she sifts rice in her spartan home,she still has a glimmer of hope in her eyes.