1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Project: Ageing, Development and Social Protection

Case Study by Martha Alter Chen

  • Project from: 2001 to 2003




- An Aging Population
The population of India is aging. The population aged 60 years and above, as a percentage of total population in India, was 6.5 percent in 1981 and 13 per cent in 1991. This trend reflects the fact that India, as a society, is experiencing a transition from high mortality and fertility rates to relatively low mortality and fertility rates. In everyday terms, this means that there are increasing numbers of elderly people who need to be cared for and decreasing numbers of younger people to care for them.

This demographic transition leaves both children and parents feeling anxious. While children worry that they cannot do enough for their aging parents, the latter worry that their children will not do enough for them. This "dependency anxiety" on both sides is real as the sheer numbers of elderly people become palpable facts of contemporary Indian life. There are significant differences, within this general picture, between how men and women experience old age in India. In this paper, I explore these differences briefly and, then, focus on the predicament of elderly widows.

- Widowhood and Aging
In India, how a person experiences aging depends significantly on her or his marital status. This is so for two basic reasons. First, people in India receive relatively little old age support from the state or their employers. This is because India is not a fully evolved welfare state and most of the Indian workforce is self-employed or casually employed. Elderly people, therefore, have to rely on support from family and community. Second, marital status serves to define the nature of care and support a person needs as well as what she or he receives from within the family and from society at large. Since relatively few people in India remain unmarried and relatively few married couples get divorced, the real issue for older people is whether they outlive their spouse. The incidence of widowhood among both men and women in India increases steeply with age. While only 5 per cent of the total population in India is widowed, 47 per cent of the elderly population is widowed.

- Gender Gap in Widowhood among the Elderly
Women are slightly over-represented among the elderly in India: that is, just over 7 per cent of all women, while just under 7 per cent of all men, are 60 years or older. Considered another way, whereas 48.1 per cent of the total population is female, 48.2 per cent of the total elderly population is female. This is because those women who survive infant-hood, adolescence, and maternity begin to outlive men after 45 years of age. However, the gender gap in the incidence of widowhood among the elderly is significant.

Across all age groups, the incidence of widowhood is less than 3 per cent of all men and more than 8 per cent of all women. This is primarily due to differences in the age at marriage and the rate of remarriage between men and women. Among those 60 years and above, the incidence of widowhood is just under 20 per cent for men and just under 65 per cent for women. This is not only because women begin to outlive men after 45 years of age but also because widowers are more likely than widows to remarry at any age but particularly when they are elderly. The net result is that widows represent over 76 per cent of the elderly persons who are widowed.

In India, the consequences - as well as the likelihood - of widowhood are very different for women and men. Compared to widows, widowers have greater freedom to remarry, more extensive property rights, wider opportunities for gainful employment, and, thereby, a more authoritative claim on economic support from their children. Moreover, widowers face few (if any) restrictions on their dress, diet, or behavior. Compared to widowers, that is, widows face very particular and often quite severe vulnerabilities.

The Predicament of Elderly Widows

- Projected Ideals
It is widely acknowledged across India that one function of extended kinship ties is to look after the wives and children of dead relatives. The projected ideal is that Hinduism provides the widow a secure place - at least physically and economically - within the joint family. Under the ideal life cycle, a Hindu woman's life is marked by the successive transfer of responsibility for her social control and economic support from father to husband to son. Yet, things often do not go according to plan. The childless widow and the young widowed mother pose particular challenges to the joint family system. Who should maintain and support them? Even an older widow with grown sons can pose a dilemma. Which of her sons should support her? What is none of her sons are willing or able to support her?

- Everyday Realities
In the early 1990s, with a team of local researchers, I surveyed all ever-widowed women in 14 villages of India, two in each of seven states: West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. We interviewed a total of 562 women of whom 510 did not remarry after losing their first husband; 35 remarried, lost their second husband, and did not remarry again; and 17 remarried and were still married. My purpose was to understand the everyday lives of widows. Do they receive regular maintenance or periodic support? If so, who maintains or supports them? Do they own property? If not, how do they survive?

Here, in brief, is what I found. In terms of living arrangements, three clear and compelling facts emerged. The first was that few widows in my sample - less than 3 per cent - live with in-laws. (Less than 4 percent of widows in most other samples live with in-laws.) The second was that surprisingly few widows in my sample - less than 4 per cent - live with their parents or brothers. (Less than 6 per cent of widows in most other samples live with parents or brothers.) The third is that less than half of all widows in my sample - just over 40 per cent - live with married sons. (About 50 per cent of widows in most other samples live with married sons.)

What happens to those who are not supported by male kin? Despite customary norms against doing so, some widows live with married daughters. However, I found that many of the daughters who we thought were 'married' were actually deserted, divorced, or widowed themselves. These bring me to another compelling fact: namely that so many widows depend on themselves or on other single women. In fact, more widows in my sample live with other single women than with male in-laws or with their fathers and brothers.

Given that few widows can depend on in-laws, parents, brothers, or daughters and not all widows have sons willing or able to support them, a large proportion of widows have to manage on their own. In my sample, about half of the widows manage on their own in households without an adult man: including widows who live entirely on their own as well as those who live with their young children (or other dependents) or with other widows.

- Managing on Their Own
Widows who manage on their own, especially elderly widows, deserve particularly attention. People rarely live along in India. Within this relatively rare phenomenon, however, there are certain clear patterns. First, those who live along fall into two main categories: young men (some with wives living separately) and elderly widows or widowers. Second, men predominate among all persons who live alone but women, mainly widows, predominate among the elderly who live alone. And, third, about half of the men who live alone are widowed whereas the vast majority of women who live alone are widows. In brief, widows predominate among the elderly who live alone.

Some elderly widows work until they are quite old. In her study of old age in a West Bengal village, Sarah Lamb found that all of the elderly widows in that village worked to make ends meet. Among elderly widows, the most common occupations are providing domestic services to other households or running small shops. In her study of old age in a low caste in Tamil Nadu, Pauline Kolenda found fifteen women (mainly widows) over the age of seventy living alone: nearly half (7 out of 15) had sons who lived separately; another seven were childless; and one had daughters who lived separately. One of the widows, who was 76 years old, made sweets which she sold to brick kiln workers. In his study of old age in a Karnataka village, Marulasiddaiah found two widows in their seventies who did manual wage work and several who ran small shops. During my fieldwork, I met several elderly widows who run shops. One widow had worked as a manual wage laborer until she was 71 when she opened a small shop at the front of the house.

Most widows who continue working until they are quite old are those that have to manage on their own - to eke out a livelihood as best they can. Some live as dependents on others but have to work to earn their keep. This is because widows often have to contribute something - property or income or domestic services - to those with whom they live or from whom they receive support. However, not all widows own property or are able to work. Some are simply too old to work, others are prevented from working under customary social norms, and still others cannot find work. In my sample, over one-third of the widows who lived alone did not work.

What happens to the widow who is too old or disabled to otherwise unable to earn a livelihood, if others do not support her? Some may claim their rights to a harvest share from their late husband's family or claim their rights to a widow pension from the government. Still others may be forced to migrate to pilgrimage towns to make ends meet by begging or, notably in Vrindavan and Varanasi, singing devotional songs. But what happens to the others? There are enough reports of blind, deaf, or mad old widows wandering aimlessly around or languishing in their villages to know what happens to some. I met a senile old widow in West Bengal whose only source of comfort was a statue of Krishna that she cradled in her lap like a child. Others are simply not around to tell their story because, among women over 45 years of age, widows die faster than married women.

Social Neglect and Public Action

Why do older widows die faster than their married sisters? The relatively high rate of widow mortality cannot be accounted for by the occasional case of sati. Other processes are quietly at work. The most striking fact of my own and other studies is how few widows can count on family or community support. The other striking finding is how many widows suffer harassment or even violence at the hands of relatives, mainly in-laws. Given the widespread neglect of widows and the not-infrequent violence against widows, public action is required to help widows demand their rights to property, to seek gainful employment outside the home if they are able to work, to provide social protection to those who are unable to work, to provide protection against violence and, most fundamentally, to promote a better image and identity for widows.

Three images of the Indian widow have long captured the attention of Indians and foreigners alike - the child widow, the ascetic widow, and the sati. But the widows I met did not evoke these images. Three other images were on their minds - the young widow with dependent children, the elderly widow with no one to depend on, and other widows who have to manage on their own. The real concerns of such widows relate to issues that the dramatic images fail to convey, namely the right of widows to property, maintenance, or gainful employment and, if these are denied, to some form of public assistance. The dramatic images of widowhood should no longer distract our attention from the real deprivations of widows. Hopefully, the growing public consciousness about aging in India will help focus attention on the status of the nearly 15 million elderly widows in the country.