BANGALORE, India – For five mornings each week, the elderly women who visit the Rangoli Women’s Center say they feel like they belong somewhere. This is an unusual feeling for many of them. In most of India, older women are practically invisible. In large families, they take on childcare duties, but as family sizes shrink across the country, women over the age of 60 are increasingly marginalized.
The ageing population is undergoing a “rapid feminization,” says social gerontologist Nidhi Gupta, who researches the quality of life of older people. The 2011 census found there are about 104 million elderly persons (aged 60 or above) in India, of whom 53 million are women.
Women tend to outlive their partners, Gupta says, and can become isolated. According to a 2016 national survey, just over 70 percent of elderly women in urban areas rely on their children to support them financially; that number is closer to 80 percent in rural India. “In a scenario where family size is reducing, children are migrating, the community needs to play a greater role,” Gupta says.
The Rangoli Center is run by the YWCA in Bangalore city’s Rajendra Nagar slum. Usha Abraham of the community development wing says it has several initiatives for young girls, working mothers and even small children. Five years ago, it saw a gap in its services and adapted the sewing center, making it available to senior citizens from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Most of the women who come to the Rangoli Center are widows from the surrounding area. They get together mostly for camaraderie. Some are abused at home while others feel guilty for burdening their children. But at the center, they are all treated with dignity and respect.
A typical morning starts with group activities and lots of sharing, with stories and singing, led by a volunteer. Then the women get to work, making paper bags and rugs that will go on sale.
“Every home has problems, but sometimes talking about problems helps,” says Maria Sylvie, 80, who has four sons, but would rather live alone. Chinamma, also about 80, agrees: “If I share, I can forget my problems. Here, I can talk it over and get some peace.”
The center has helped all the women obtain documentation and a small monthly pension. They also earn a small percentage from the sale of their crafts. Doctors and social workers make regular visits. Sometimes the women go on day trips to parks and lakes.
But the highlight of their day is definitely lunch. “We provide buns and eggs, but we have donors who contribute rations and food every day,” Abraham says. “Since many of the women are made to feel like they are imposing on their children, we allow them to take the food home. It makes them feel like contributing members of their families, and that dignity is so important.”
Morning prayers are led by a different woman every day, in the local language, Kannada.
“My husband died eight years ago,” Susan Mary says. “I am happy to live alone. I have 11 children, but I don’t want to make problems for them; they have their own families and their own problems. Even my grandson already has his own son. I come here and it’s a little like church, which I attend every Sunday. I share my problems with Jesus.”
Chinamma and Sarda Ma
Chinamma shares a small space with her two daughters, their husbands and three grandchildren. She has been coming to the center for five years.
“I carried them in my womb for nine months, brought them up, fed them, clothed them, but now all they do is scold me,” she says of her family as she wipes her eyes. “They think I’m a useless old woman. I can’t ask for anything. If I ask for coffee, they say, ‘Why? Are you going to work that you need coffee?’ When I ask for food, my daughter says, ‘Go die!’”
Sarda Ma has three sons and daughters-in-law but prefers to stay with her daughter, who was abandoned by her husband. Her daughter works long hours so looking after the grandsons falls to her. “I’d like to do more for my daughter, but I really can’t. I give my pension to her, I take food from here.” Even in the room she shares with her family, she feels alone. “And being here is lovely. I get my strength from these people, my friends. Here is better, much better.”
The highlight today, a Thursday, is that the women get a hard-boiled egg along with their usual meal of boiled rice and sambhar – a lentil and vegetable stew. Studies have found that malnutrition is higher in elderly women than men, which social gerontologist Gupta attributes to a lack of access to household resources among older women.
Jaya Amma, who has vitiligo, does not speak. But she’s been a regular and enthusiastic participant at the center for several years, with a preference for working on paper bags.
The women each take home a small percentage of the proceeds from the sales of bags and rugs they make at the center. Jay Mary has been coming here for four years. “I come here for the break,” she says. “At home I have to look after three grandsons and there is a lot of work.” When she worked as a porter, she used to be so strong, she says, “But now I am weak.”
Jay Mary is one of the few women at the center whose husband is still alive; still, she dreads the future. She is sure she will outlive him. “My son is ready for me to live with him, but my daughter-in-law …” she trails off, shaking her head. Then she brightens. “But here we have games, exercise, singing, yoga, food, and I’m enjoying it.”