In the closing years of the 20th century, widows were absent fromthe discourse about humanitarian issues. Anecdotally, we knew of suffering that had – through the ages – been inflicted on widows through practices such as Sati, the ritual self-immolation on the husband’s funeral pyre, but we thought these horrors belonged to a distant past. We knew there were millions of poor widows inIndia and elsewhere, but we thought of that as a poverty issue,not specifically connected to their status as widows.
From scratch the surface
The Loomba Foundation’s second principal aid programme, focusing on the empowerment of widows, was launched as the Foundation entered its second decade. If in many villages, towns and cities and in numerous countries it is impossible for widows to find employment – whether because of discrimination or lack of skills – the inevitable consequence is that they must support themselves by other means, and all too often this leads to child labour, prostitution and other forms of exploitation. The Loomba Foundation’s empowerment programme invests in skills training, equipment and microfinance to help widows set up in business and become independent.
In 2005, the Loomba Foundation launched an empowerment partnership with YBI – Youth Business International – a project of the Prince of Wales International Business Leaders Forum that helps disadvantaged people in many countries start up new sustainable businesses and create jobs. Branded the Loomba Entrepreneur Programme, this partnership venture has delivered support to widows in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Syria, Kenya, Uganda, Chile and Guatemala.
In Nairobi, the Loomba Entrepreneur Programme has been in contact with over 5,000 widows and orphans in nine communities. Some 300 of these participated in business skills training and 92 widows attended further workshop courses on how to start up a business. More than 40 widows and children of widows were given loans and business mentors and those already in business have received on-the-job skills training.
In Sri Lanka there was a large proportion of female-headed households due to internal conflict in the country, labour migration and the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Working with local women’s organisations, the Loomba Entrepreneur Programme identified women who were interested in starting their own business, leading on to training and investment in jewellery, garment making and other businesses.
“Helping people help themselves in this way,” said YBI Chief Executive Andrew Devenport, “has a hugely beneficial impact on the wellbeing of the families and employees.” He pointed to reduced poverty and hunger, increased access to basic services, and reduced vulnerability to violence, disease and discrimination as some of the immediate benefits, alongside improvements in confidence and self-esteem, organisational skills and standing in the community for widows, their children and orphans.
Encouraged by the success of its partnerships with Youth Business International and Virgin Unite, in 2008 the Loomba Foundation launched the Loomba Entrepreneur Programme in South Africa to empower 100 young widows with the support of international and local NGOs
In January 2008, the Foundation organised a landmark industry conference at Federation House, the headquarters of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) in New Delhi, looking at the role of corporate responsibility in the country’s development with particular focus on empowerment of widows and educating their children. The conference highlighted the benefits of enabling India’s widows to work for themselves and this led directly to a partnership with health and beauty expert Dr. Blossom Kochhar to offer tuition to 100 widows and potential investment in setting up a business which was launched in April 2008.
The Rwandan genocide in 1994 ravaged that country and – as with many conflicts and natural disasters – the hardest hit are those who are marginalised in the community: widows and their children. The Loomba Foundation had already learned a great deal about the specific issues faced by widows in subSaharan Africa from its successful partnerships with Youth Business International and Virgin Unite when a chance meeting between the Mayor of Kigali, Dr. Aisa Kirabo Kacyira, and Raj Loomba at a Commonwealth Business Conference in 2009 led to an expansion of the Foundation’s empowerment programme in that country. In partnership with Oxfam (GB), the Loomba Foundation delivered aid including training and startup funding to 350 Rwandan widows who were genocide survivors.
In 2012, the Loomba Foundation launched a new initiative to empower 10,000 poor widows in India by providing each with training in garment-making as well as a sewing machine. By enabling these widows to earn money independently, an impact report from Northampton University has calculated that this scheme has directly benefited some 100,000 dependents by supporting the family and enabling children to continue in education. New local projects were launched in Bihar, Delhi, Andhra Pradesh and Puducherry in 2013; and in March 2014 the Foundation launched a partnership with Lions Clubs International, which included the donation of 2,000 sewing machines for widows in India
In August 2014, Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal launched an empowerment scheme for 2,000 widows. Later that year saw the launch of further schemes in Delhi NCR, for 120 widows including 40 who were prisoners; in Mumbai, for 524 widows; Patna, Bihar (41); New Delhi (83); Hyderabad (51); Srikakulam, Telangana (280); and Puducherry (100).
According to the 2011 Population Census of India, the holy city of Varanasi in the State of Uttar Pradesh is home to 90,000 widows, and on 22 January 2016 the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, who represents Varanasi in the Lok Sabha, launched the Foundation’s programme to train and support 5,000 poor widows in the city, which was fully delivered in just over two years.
The Central Jail in the Haryana State city of Ambala was the setting for the launch of an empowerment scheme for 1,000 widows and women prisoners across all 19 district jails of Haryana. The project was launched on 23 December 2016 by Haryana’s Health, Sport and Youth Minister Anil Vij and Lord Loomba, who emphasised the Loomba Foundation’s mission “to make prisons a place of reformation and give the incarcerated beings a chance to become an asset to society upon their release.
In 2017 the Loomba Foundation began its programme to empower 2,000 widows in Vrindavan, often described as the ‘City of Widows’, and Amethi, including the distribution of sewing machines through its partnership with Lions Club International, which had been launched at an event in New Delhi on 8 August 2016.
On 23 June 2017, the Loomba Foundation in partnership with the Rotary India Literacy Mission launched a scheme that delivered training and startup support for 4,300 poor widows in five States. This programme not only increases the numbers but also considerably extends the range of skills and trades offered, including Beauty & Wellness, Health & Care, Security, Telecom Services, Tourism & Hospitality, Handicrafts, Food Processing, Textiles & Apparel, Agriculture and Automotive.
Loomba Foundation supporter and champion Chris Parsons raised many thousands of dollars for widows back in 2011 when he cycled from London to Gibraltar and in 2015 with his “Walk for Widows”, walking 30 marathons in 30 days in India. On 3 February 2020, just weeks before the world was paralysed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Chris embarked on his next venture, to raise US$450,000 to empower 5,000 widows and dependent youths in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. His plan was to cycle 4,500 km in 45 days, from Kanyakumari in the south to Srinagar in the north. In the event he had almost achieved his ultimate objective when the pandemic forced him to cut short the journey at Jammu on the 41st day. Due in no small measure to his heroic efforts, however, the empowerment programme is now under way.