Changing tides of time
Old women, especially widows, have suffered ridicule over the years. But, by empowering them with self-sustaining skills, they can be made effective in nation building, says V. MOHINI GIRI.
Teaching session in progress at Vrindavan.
WAY back in 1971, after the Bangladesh war, I was told by several hundreds of Jawans dying in the various hospitals, "Do not worry about me but take care of the ones I leave behind." I had to work on a war-footing to organise the War Widows Association and I felt very inadequate both in experience and exposure to get help for the war widows scattered throughout the country.
It was then that I was approached by several retired government servants, judges, lawyers and industrialists who offered to help me in this venture. But for the intervention of the elderly, the Association would not have been able to lend a hand to the widows.
I still remember Mr. Soni who had retired from the Audits and Accounts; the 65-year-old coming daily to the two-room make-shift office of the President Bodyguard and helping us with accounts. He taught us the system of filing, the system of keeping things in order and above all, office management.
It is obvious there is an urgent need to tap the potential of the elderly towards national development. Here I would like to mention my recent experience with the widows of Vrindavan. There was a time when women of Vrindavan with tonsured head and an emaciated look were begging on the streets. On May 13, when the entire country was observing solidarity with the sisters of Gujarat, the widows of Vrindavan did not want to be left behind. Today, they are not only self-supporting, economically empowered with a strong sense of self-esteem, but they are also playing an active role in nation building. Today, their concern is no longer for their next meal, it extends to empathy for those in distress.
Given the opportunity to play a role commensurate with their background and life experience, older women can be excellent resource persons in the community and in the national development process. Unfortunately, these opportunities were not given in the past, nor envisaged in the National Policy for Older Persons possibly due to the mindset that elderly women are of no use.
Old women fall into two categories the literate elite needing no support and the vast majority of middle class and the poverty-stricken for whom old-age homes and old-age pensions are the only answers.
It is often forgotten that a country like India where motherhood has always been revered is slowly changing. Although India in 1999 adopted a policy for the aged, I fail to see how we could put these policies into effect. The constraints are of course economic, of how and from where to get financial support for the millions of the elderly in India. Today, our elderly population has more than doubled. Those between the ages of 60-75 can be utilised in several fields of activity. I would like to give an example of one such activity that has been successful.
Old widows in Mathura and Vrindavan are left to the mercy of the public to eke out an existence. The only way to help them get out of this state is to empower them with self-sustaining skills. The Guild of Service has been working with these women for the past two years and is familiar with their problems. During a free cataract eye camp held in March/April 2000 at Mathura, a group of widows were recruited to help in nursing of patients. Their performance was quite satisfactory and indicated that, if trained, these women could become nursing assistants. Two batches were trained. In spite of a lack of formal education and age being against them, these women have proved to be efficient.
Today we have more elderly women than men in spite of the low nutrition the former receive. A large number of widows outlive men despite accumulated problems during their reproductive age, and the menopausal and post-menopausal trauma.
We can utilise the services of elderly women in supervising and assisting activities of children in homes like the SOS and other such establishments.
There are two categories of elderly women: Those who are educated, have financial resources, yet are lonesome because their children are not with them and the other are those who are illiterate, economically deprived and need care and protection.
The Government of India runs several ICDS programmes, Anganwadi programmes, Primary Health Centres, the Adult Literacy programme, Panchayati Raj, Poverty alleviation programme and slum development programme. There is the added advantage in utilising these women as they are content with the specific job given and are not always hankering for attention or tempted to skip jobs for higher emoluments.
At Vrindavan, the elderly widows are keen on taking care of cows for a livelihood. Milk thus collected could be utilised in producing good quality butter and buttermilk.
The Panchayati Raj has great potential as older women are found to be experienced, conscientious and free to take care of community development work.
Having run an NGO for women for the past four decades I have found their usefulness is tremendous in running various welfare activities. We were fortunate to have the services of Mr. Puri who is 80 years old. He has been with our NGO for the past 20 years. Services of such old people also makes them feel wanted.
At the National Commission for Women I had the privilege of having the services of at least a dozen consultants in the age group of 65 to 75. The librarian, Mr. Sahni, was 78 years old and it was only his commitment that saw a good researched library at the NCW. Mr. Ravindran, 72, headed the complaint cell at NCW, where we would get 200 complaints a day from across the country. Dr. Menon was 65 years old and he would attend to the large section of women in agriculture and with his vast knowledge brought hope to thousands of tribals and agricultural women by policy changes. The list is endless.
It would not be out of place to mention that 60 per cent of our parliamentarians are in the 60-80 age range. Of course, the ethos of national development is not a high priority in Parliament, otherwise their potential could have been utilised far better.
In India, the old have always been considered as repositories of wisdom gained through experience. They have graduated from the school of life. A predominantly consumerist culture changes all that. Aggression, success, fast track are the key words in a world where human value is measured in terms of the contribution to the GDP of the country. Is human value to be measured in cold human figures? It is time we found answers to these questions on our terms based on our cultural ethos, not on the borrowed parameters of alien concepts.
The writer is honorary chairperson and vice president of the Guild of Service, New Delhi.
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