MUMBAI, India – Surekha Shinde was eight months pregnant when she learned her husband, Ramchandra Shinde, was dead. It was 1971, and India was at war with Pakistan. Ramchandra had been killed in the fighting.
The devastating news pushed Shinde, then 24, into early labor, and she gave birth prematurely. With her new son hospitalized for two months, and a four-year-old daughter to look after, she had no time to grieve for her husband
While she waited to see if her baby would live, she worried about how she would support her children, now that her husband was gone. The government’s compensation of 5,000 Indian rupees ($73.50), and monthly pensions of 150 rupees ($2.20) helped, but they weren’t enough.
Six years later, she lost her son to jaundice. After the boy developed a fever, Shinde couldn’t afford the bus fare to the hospital, which was nine miles away from her village in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. He had to walk the distance, and died soon after.
Heartbroken, Shinde left her husband’s house and moved to her brother’s home in Mumbai with her daughter. She started working as a housemaid and baby-sitter, and has continued doing so for the past four decades.
“The army helped me with a job in a government hospital, but I couldn’t do it for long. It required me to walk to a lake several miles away, fill [a container with] water, bring it back and wash bloodied clothes from the hospital,” says Shinde, who recently underwent bypass surgery. She currently owes 900,000 rupees ($13,235) to private moneylenders. “Even at 71 years old, I’m fighting the same battles I have all my life.”
Too Little Too Late
According to estimates, India has around 25,000 war widows – the highest number in the world.
“Most people believe that since India is not currently at war, no men are martyred. But the truth is that the Indian army is always involved in special operations meant to tackle various insurgencies, which are neither politicized nor publicized,” says Captain Vidhya Ratnaparkhi, an officer with the government-run Department of Sainik Welfare (DSW). “Every year, we have fresh battle casualties, and every year, we have more women faced with this colossal tragedy.”
According to data from DSW, at least 90 percent of army widows live in rural areas, and are either illiterate or have minimal levels of education. This limits their employment opportunities, and in some cases, leaves them vulnerable to losing their monthly pensions to unscrupulous in-laws.
When she learned about the plight of army widows while researching a school project, Gauhrishi Narang, a 16-year-old student, decided to launch Mission Army Widows Empowerment, an initiative in Mumbai to help widows with funding, training on income growth and sustenance, and participation in livelihood-generation programs.
“Most of these women are widowed before they turn 30, and for the next four to five decades of their lives, they are left with the unending struggle to survive their loss, raise their children, and take care of their families,” she says.
Narang says most army widows live on “despicable” pensions, citing the case of Sumati Yadav, who lived on a monthly pension of 4.5 rupees ($0.06) for almost three and a half decades until recently. Yadav lost her husband in the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war – the same month she delivered her baby. With no means of communication between Kashmir, where the war took place, and her village, she only learned of her husband’s death 10 months later. His body was never found.
The government increased pension amounts following the 1999 Indo-Pakistani war and Yadav, now 73, started getting 22,000 rupees ($323.50) per month. “But it was too little, too late,” she says. “Now, my son is suffering from a terminal illness, and I’m spending the last years of my life struggling to gather money for his treatment.”
Trying to do more to help women like Yadav, Narang approached the DSW, which gave her a list of army widows and extended its support to her initiative. In June 2016, she started raising money through online crowdfunding and used social media to spread awareness about her campaign. By the end of 2017, she had raised 600,000 rupees ($8,823), most of which was shared among seven widows in need of urgent financial help.
“The remaining amount was donated to the DSW’s Flag Day fund, which helps army widows and their families with medical and other financial requirements,” says Narang. Her crowdfunding campaign is still active, and continues to help women in need, she says. “It is disturbing how the wives of martyred soldiers try to survive their lives. Not many nongovernmental organizations work in the field, leaving little hope for respite.”
Captain Ratnaparkhi says campaigns like Narang’s are contributing to a growing awareness about the struggles of army widows. In 2016, the defense ministry doubled the amount given to army widows and families of killed soldiers. The monthly pension differs according to the fallen soldier’s rank, but the minimum a war widow now receives is 15,000 rupees ($220) per month.
But to the thousands of army widows who’ve already lived a life of distress following the loss of their husbands, this new awareness comes too late. Suman Mane, 56, lost her husband of four years to an insurgency in the northeast Indian state of Nagaland in 1982. She was 21 at the time and had two small children to look after.
The Indian government gave Mane an administrative job, but even today she lives in debt. She lost her son to blood cancer in 2004, and got only 7,000 rupees ($102.90) from the government for his treatment. Her daughter’s husband died in 2010 as the result of a heart attack, and Mane now works to take care of her daughter and her granddaughter. She is due to retire in three years, and fears she’ll have nowhere to go since she’ll have to vacate the home allotted to her through her job.
“Had my husband been around, all these hardships would have been much easier to endure – financially and emotionally,” says Mane, now 57.
“My heart still swells with pride every time my husband’s name is mentioned. But after he laid his life for the nation, there has not been one day when I haven’t contemplated suicide.”
Correction: This story has been updated to remove some details about Surekha Shinde’s family to protect their privacy.