Empowering Indian women who lost their partners to COVID
COVID Women Help is an initiative that helps widowed women financially and professionally.
Nichelle John* was six weeks pregnant when she and her husband contracted COVID-19 in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru last month.
A week after they were infected, her husband Shawn* died of the virus on May 11. He was 38.
Two days later, Nichelle had a miscarriage and lost her unborn baby.
While she has fully recovered from the viral disease, she says her world has been shattered.
“For the last two years, we were trying for a baby and when finally everything was going fine, the virus devastated my entire world and took everything I had in my life,” she told Al Jazeera.
Like Nichelle, thousands of Indian women have lost their husbands to the coronavirus pandemic, most of those men were the sole earners in their families.
Nichelle worked as a human resource professional for seven years before quitting her job nearly two years ago.
Soon after her husband’s death, another reality hit her: she needed to find a job, at a time when the pandemic had caused huge job losses across India and forced millions of people out of work.
As luck would have it, she was contacted by a volunteer from COVID Women Help – an initiative that seeks to empower women who lost their partners to the pandemic by providing them financial and professional help.
Less than a month after Shawn’s death, Nichelle got a job with a human resource solutions company with the help of COVID Women Help. She started working on June 1.
India’s under-funded healthcare system came under immense pressure during a ferocious second wave of the COVID pandemic as it ravaged the country, with hospitals running out of medical oxygen, beds and medicines.
The country’s total caseload stands at 29.70 million, while total fatalities are at 381,903, according to the health ministry’s data. More than 200,000 of those deaths took place during the second wave.
The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), an economic think-tank, said there were more than 22 million job losses in the months of April and May due to the COVID lockdown.
CMIE said while women accounted for only 10.7 percent of the workforce, nearly 14 percent of them lost their jobs in April. The think-tank also estimated that of the total job losses in India by November last year, 49 percent were women.
Anuradha Roy, 38, has a master’s degree in computer applications and works as a talent acquisition consultant in an IT firm.
Earlier this year, she moved to Noida, a satellite town on New Delhi’s outskirts, along with her husband for better work opportunities.
On May 5, the mother of two children aged five and 10, lost her husband to COVID-19.
The full weight of the family’s financial needs dropped onto her shoulders, and she registered with COVID Women Help to find a better job.
“I just want to look after my kids, give them the best opportunities I can. They are in grief and pain. Losing their father at such an early stage is not easy,” Roy told Al Jazeera.
Nichelle says women in India are not generally the primary wage earners in a family.
“They are mostly dependent on their husbands. And when something sudden happens like what happened with me, it’s a very difficult situation to deal with,” she said.
She said the COVID Women Help is a “very good initiative” not only for women in urban areas but also in the countryside “because people don’t get much exposure there”.
The initiative is the brainchild of Yudhvir Mor, 40, who works in Noida as India manager and vice president of a US-based software company.
Mor launched the website on May 11 and it has amassed 15,000 volunteers to date, all of them using their contacts to help find jobs for widowed women.
Some 6,000 women have signed up through the website to either find their first job or upgrade their career.
COVID Women Help has also collaborated with more than 200 companies. In just a month, the volunteers say they have helped more than 100 women find jobs in the corporate sector.
Mor said once women register themselves on the website, they will be contacted by a validated volunteer who will understand their educational qualification, work experience, location preference and the type of work they want.
In phase one of the initiative, volunteers offer four types of assistance – career counselling, resume writing, job referral and interview preparation.
Mor said he lost three of his former colleagues and two of his best friends during the second wave of the pandemic. “That’s when reality hit me,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world,” Mor quoted Noble laureate, South African cleric and theologian Desmond Tutu.
Mor said he was saddened to see his fellow countrymen struggling for medical oxygen and beds. “I wasn’t able to do anything for anyone. I wanted to help people and that is why I came with this idea.”
The volunteer-driven initiative has a tagline, #RiseAgain, and its aim is to help widows achieve financial stability.
Mor said they have a target of finding job opportunities for 10,000 women within the next six months.
“We want these women to rise again,” he said.
*Names changed to protect the individual’s identity.