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The feminist movement in India is in resurgence. Women are making themselves heard in boardrooms, banks, Parliament and panchayats (village councils) across India. They are rightfully gaining “agency” that has long been denied to them.
But a crucial voice remains missing from their movement—that of widows. Their numbers are significant and growing and need voice and attention.
Recent estimates indicate there are 259 million widows globally and over 46 million in India alone. More than 585 million children are dependent on these widows globally.
According to the United Nations, there is no group more affected by the sin of omission than widows. They are painfully absent from the statistics of many developing countries, and they are rarely mentioned in the multitude of reports on women’s poverty, development, health or human rights in the last 25 years.
This status quo has become unacceptable to some. One of them is Raj Loomba, founder and chairman of the Loomba Foundation, who says this omission is “morally unconscionable”.
One of the biggest champions of this cause globally, he persuaded United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon in 2010 to designate 23 June as International Widows Day. He also garnered support from Cherie Blair, wife of former UK prime minister Tony Blair, and has taken her to India 15 times to participate in fund-raising events with him.
His aim now is to lobby the Indian government to ensure that at least 5% of the reserved seat quota for women in local body elections is earmarked for widows. He also wants to work with the government to set up support centres for widows through panchayats in India.
To empower widows and educate their children has become the mission of this 72-year-old NRI (non-resident Indian) philanthropist for the last two decades. Since 1997, the Loomba Foundation has raised £5 million for widows and their children in India, and around the world.
Loomba has organized at least 50 high-profile fund-raising events and conferences in the UK, US, India and Africa, with senior politicians and high-profile guests such as Hillary Clinton, then a New York senator; musician and peace activist Yoko Ono and leading global business leaders.
“Without addressing widow’s rights, women’s rights will remain a myth,” he says.
Recently, he got Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attention for this cause, who launched the Loomba Foundation’s project in Varanasi to support 5,000 widows with necessary skills and equipment to achieve financial independence.
At this launch, the PM said: “Both Lord Loomba and his wife are deeply dedicated to help the widows in India. Our government will fully support them in this mission.”
The 2011 Census of India estimates Varanasi alone has more than 90,000 widows. They come to the town to spend the rest of their lives after being ostracized by their families and live in desperately poor condition.
“What we are doing is a drop in the ocean. Much more needs to get done, but this is a step in the right direction,” he says.
Loomba claims that unless the Indian government comes forward in a substantive way to help widows, “the country will never be able to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs).”
The SDGs were adopted by all governments, including India’s, at the 69th General Assembly of the United Nations in New York in September 2015.
“I have recently proposed to the Prime Minister that the government should establish a ‘National Commission for Widows’. This can have a real impact at the grassroots level,” he claims.
Besides working with half-a-dozen state governments in India, the Loomba Foundation also conducted in 2015 the first ever comprehensive global research study on widows that shines a spotlight on the state of widows in each nation and proposes steps to improve their conditions.
The report highlights that while most countries, including India, have laws in place against the abuse of widows, there is negligent implementation of the law.
Institutional action, social protection and human rights conventions have been poorly activated for this cause. Culture plays a huge role in this context.
“Widows are seen as a curse even today in many developing countries who bring bad luck to the family,” says Loomba. “They are subjected to segregation, social exclusion, starvation, rape, HIV/AIDS, and seizure of assets. This abuse is rampant and mostly goes unchallenged.”
“This is one of the worst human rights violation against the most vulnerable section of the women’s population. It needs urgent attention and action.”
Loomba’s trigger for this cause was the disbelief at the treatment meted out to his widowed mother—when he was 10 years old—by his grandmother and other society “seniors”.
A defining moment came when he got married. The priest who was conducting the wedding ceremony asked his mother to move away from the altar because, being a widow, she could bring bad luck to the newly-weds.
“I was shocked, and very angry. How could a mother who gave me birth, a mother who educated me, a mother who always wished me well, how could she bring me bad luck? Why are widows being treated in this inhuman way? I decided then I wanted to help widows regain their status and respect in society,” he explains.
Born in 1943 in Dhilwan, Punjab, he is the fifth of seven children whom his mother, Pushpa Wati, raised and educated single-handedly.
After completing his education at D.A.V College, Jalandhar, she even managed to send him to the University of Iowa in 1960, but two years into his degree, her money ran out.
So he came to London “to start from scratch”.
This meant working in a factory, making car parts, selling ice-cream and ladies’ stockings on a market stall.
From this modest beginning, he grew his business into 500 concession retail outlets with a presence in most major UK departmental stores, offices in China and India, with over 300 employees. With corporate headquarters at the Loomba House in London, the Rinku Group of companies specializes in the design, sourcing and retailing of smart and casual ladies’ wear for the mature market.
It produces the Tigi Wear and Viz A Viz brands, which are distributed wholesale, and supplies major high street multiples with their own label product.
MintAsia interviewed him on the sidelines of the One Globe Conference in Delhi in early February.
You are one of the most successful fund-raisers for widows’ rights globally. How did you manage to get the attention of global leaders, royalty, and celebrities for this cause?
Twenty years ago, in 1997, I organized a fund-raiser in London to celebrate India’s 50th (independence) anniversary. It remains the most prestigious and well-attended Indian event to date in England.
We had four Prime Ministers, Prince Charles and the chairman of Bank of England. So, in essence, the establishment of England, political, religious, financial and royal family were all there.
Over 1,000 distinguished guests attended this fund-raiser. We raised a quarter of a million pounds and since then we have not looked back.
Cherie Blair is president and one of the biggest patrons of Loomba Foundation. How did you co-opt her for the cause of widows?
Cherie Blair has always been deeply committed to the cause of women’s empowerment, which is reflected through the work of her own foundation. Her commitment to Loomba Foundtion also stems from that passion for the cause.
In 2004, I brought her for the first time to India, along with 40 other high-profile people including Richard Branson. We had a fund-raising dinner in Delhi and raised $1 million in one night. Since then, she has come to India with me for over a dozen fund-raising events. Her name alone has brought a lot of credibility and done a lot of good for widows’ empowerment and rights.
You launched the Loomba Foundation in the United Nations. How did that happen and what impact did it have?
In 2005, Cherie Blair launched the foundation in the UN with me. Here, (then secretary-general) Kofi Annan said: “I am very sorry we did not include widows in the MDGs (millennium development goals). But the UN will pay more attention to this cause going forward.”
And the UN has indeed stood by its commitment and designated International Widows Day on 23 June each year. This has given the cause global attention and is slowly making an impact.
Secretary general Ban Ki-Moon is very supportive of widows’ rights and empowerment. He recognizes that this is a pressing human rights issue today.
What is your personal vision for the work that you champion?
For the individual widow in Varanasi, in Kigali, in Donetsk, Damascus or Philadelphia, my hope is that this work will mean her voice will not much longer go unheard, or her desperate plight unseen.
Our foundation will continue with its twin-track approach of bringing both empirical evidence and necessary aid for the cause.
The fact that widows have suffered for generations does not mean that the status quo should continue.
My vision is that it must be disrupted and dismantled in the next two decades.