Category Archives: Widows

India, India! (I return)

After over two years, I’m back in India. For whatever reason, this country has grabbed me more than most, and I have returned to the same place again in my travels, with plans to return for many many more visits… 


SNP Widows

 In the middle of an unrelenting heat-wave, I am back at the BIRDS campus in the village of Muthylapadu, in the Kurnool District of Andhra (no longer Andhra-Pradesh), India. The school children are on summer break and without them, the campus feels empty but at peace. Taking their place, are the widowed employees of Shelter International’s Sanitary Napkin Project. Visiting them in their workshop and my interactions with them have been a highlight of the last few years. Words do not begin to express my sentiments and I hope that I am able to process and share these feelings in the future.

While I am here for the widows, I am also here to research the beliefs and practices of feminine hygiene in this portion of village India. Two friends have joined me and together we are trying to create a concrete and evidence-based picture of the area’s current feminine hygiene practices. As tools, we are using focus groups and individual interviews with women and Community Health Workers (CHWs).



 So far, only two days into the individual interviews, our results are quite interesting. It seems that the majority of women here already use sanitary napkins, most having adopted them recently because they wanted the “freedom” and “comfort” to move about. Previously, they used bits of cloths that restricted their movements, caused mortifying menstrual mishaps, unpleasant smells, rashes, and were embarrassing to wash, dry, and reuse. When I ask these impoverished women the maximum price that they would pay for napkins, they almost unanimously reply, “Napkins are now a necessity. Even if the cost was 100 rupees (current prices in the villages range from 26-45 rupees), we will pay it, because we will never go back to the old ways.” 

Despite this unexpected progress, many of the women still face restrictions on their behaviors and movements during menstruation. So far, none of them worship during their menses, as they feel “impure.” Several do not travel or leave the house, many restrict the foods that they eat, and some are forced to stay outside or in a corner for the duration of their period. Thus, while some women do have the freedom and comfort to go about their days normally, because of custom, many women are still restricted and stay home from work or school during menstruation.

Education is also lacking and, perhaps surprisingly, mothers do not tell their daughters about menstruation until after menarche (their first period). And, as one might expect, sex education is lacking in the Indian school system. Thus, when girls see their first drops of blood, they fear disease or death and run crying to their mothers, who then tell them that this is a normal process for girls– their entrance into womanhood. Several of the women revealed that they never had the opportunity to learn from their mothers, because they were married within a month of menarche and their mothers did not have time to explain how to manage menses. Furthermore, women have no knowledge of the physiological process of menstruation and very few women are able to identify the origin of menstrual blood.

Still early in this process, my mind rolls over future projects and mostly educational interventions. I am also dreaming up ways to expand Shelter to employ more widows, as widows frequently travel great distances hearing that we employ widows and treat them well (unfortunately, the stigma of widows is still strong). While I do have a slight bias, I have already seen the impact that Shelter has had on the lives of our employees and even on women in the villages. I feel so lucky and thankful to be able to do this work. It is what drives me and gives me the energy to succeed in my studies.

More to come as time, internet, and power allow…


I interviewed this widow over 2.5 years ago. She is still alive, wearing the same blouse, and is now in her 90s.


Raw Material and almost finsihed product


The BIRDS farm


(Hopefully Not) Lost in Translation


Every act of human communication requires some form of translation. Even speaking in our own language requires translating what one person meant in his own mind into what one thinks he meant to convey. Body language as well requires translation–but perhaps body language is so engrained in our nature that it requires a bit less translation (although it can add even more confusion to the act of translating for the body often says one thing and words another).

Now move these complexities into a different language and add yet another filter and layer of translation–a translator. And now add different customs that might even obscure some body language (i.e. do people smile because they are happy or because it is their custom?). From all these complexities one can easily see the difficulties of translation–especially when one must use a translator.


Interview with translator in a tribal village

In my interviews with widows, I had to use a Telugu to English translator. While it was incredible that I could “speak” with the widows, I did run into a few problems (really more minor annoyances) with my translator. For one, he was a man and I was interviewing uneducated women who came from a culture where women are considered less than their male counterparts–and I was asking these women for some fairly personal and gender-based information. Seeing this potential barrier, I had originally arranged for a female translator, but she had an unforseen arranged marriage and was no longer available. So, I had to make due with what I had and now must factor the male translator into the equation. Doing this, I assume that the stories that these women told me were actually more horrific than the information and translations that I received.

Some other issues that I faced with the translator involved him filtering what the women had to say and giving me only what he thought I wanted to hear. While my questions were answered somewhat directly, I had posed the questions as open ended because I wanted to get the women to talk about their lives. And, from what I could not understand but judging from the length of their answers, it worked. However, from the brevity of the translations I received, I know that my translator had his filter on high. I would constantly ask, “What else did she say?” and my translator would respond:

“She is telling me about her sorrows.”


“Next question.”

I would receive this frustrating response to my pleas for better translation (or actual translation!) several times each interview.

Another frustration besides the filter set on high was my translator responding “same thing” instead of actually translating what the woman actually said. Yes, every woman that I spoke with suffered from neglect and discrimination. But I wanted to hear their stories and hear what they had to say.


Interview in a village school

And yet another annoyance which I think actually did affect my research was the translation of the responses to the mental health questionnaire. These questions were a little more direct. Where the first part of my interview asked open ended questions such as “What is your opinion about widowhood in your village?”, the mental health questionnaire asked questions that were meant to get responses more along the lines of “yes,” or “no,” or “sometimes.” But, as these women wanted and needed to talk and share their sorrows, their responses were not quite so direct. For example, their responses to “In the past month, how often have you been feeling sad?” would consist of a long story about what had happened in the past month rather than a response such as “seven times.” Thus, my translator would say “sometimes” or “no” and would look annoyed when I would ask him to elaborate. As each response in this section was meant to generate a number, such inaccuracies in translation do effect my research.

In regards to inaccuracies in the mental health score, towards the end of my interviews, I realized that my translator was adding a little too much of his own translation onto the responses in regards to questions about whether the widows ever thought that life was not worth living. I discovered this issue when a women gave a long and emotional response and my translator simply translated, “No. Next question.” Here, I demanded an elaboration. It turned out that this woman had twice attempted suicide but for the sake of her children did not want to harbor such thoughts. And so, in response to the question: “Have you ever felt that life was not worth living?”, my translator translated the response of a woman who had actually admitted attempting suicide more than once as “no”. Thus, my translator failed to translate the difference between wanting to feel a certain way and actually feeling a certain way.


Interview at the BIRDS farm

From this point on, I demanded actual translations to these questions. However, for the previous eighty-five or so widows that I had questioned, I cannot fully trust the accuracy of their mental health scores. Thus, I will have to translate and factor these inaccuracies into the mental health scores. Unfortunately, the actual scores are probably actually much higher than those that I have calculated. And, as the previous post states, the average mental health score for the one hundred and eleven widows was 4.47 on a scale from 0-8.

Despite my issues with my translator, I do feel that my research is fairly accurate and am thankful that I had a translator. Unfortunately, the inaccuracies and issues due to the gender of my translator and his actual translation only make my results even more depressing.

Portraits of Indian Widows

I have completed my research and have now interviewed one-hundred-and-eleven of India’s poorest rural widows. I have entered some findings into a spreadsheet and now have some basic statistics. I interviewed women ages nineteen to eighty-nine with an average age of fifty-one. Sixty-four of these women live alone or are the sole supporters of their families (only forty-four report receiving support at all). Of these one-hundred-and-eleven women, the average age of marriage was just 14.48, with the youngest being married at just ten years and the oldest at twenty-five. The mental health scores from the mental health questionnaire, with a range of 0 to 8, averaged 4.18 (and I am not sure how accurate this number is as I always had trouble with my translator here–but I will go more into that issue in a later post).

This experience has been transformative to say the least. I have been deeply moved by these women and amazed at their strength and endurance for life at its worse. I have loved my time here and feel honored to have had so many women share their lives with me. I know that I will somehow continue this work in the future.

Below are portraits of thirty-four of the widows, including the nineteen year old and the eighty-nine year old.

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Something about HIV


There is just something about HIV that makes the heart stop. When it’s mentioned (especially in close context), the whole body collapses. The throat closes, the chest sinks, the stomach drops. Time freezes or at least becomes painfully slow. This is the state that I found myself in yet again this afternoon.

(I can’t imagine what patients must go through when they get their positive diagnoses.)

I will keep this story short. It involves a thirty year old woman (I will call her Lakshmi), who came to my room and brought me ORS when I was sick my first week in India. Lakshmi’s husband committed suicide five years ago after learning his HIV status and giving up on life three years later. He was an alcoholic mason who presumably frequented prostitutes in between beating his wife. After learning that he was HIV positive, he attempted to change his ways and find God, working in a church for three years. However, his attempts failed and he instead committed suicide. He left behind his wife and two HIV positive children, who are now nine and ten and studying at the BIRDS school (the mother and children are receiving treatment). I have met both children.

When I asked Lakshmi the question concerning her future, she told me what nearly every mother that I have talked to has said: That she wants to work hard so that she can give her children a good education and better lives than she had. I don’t remember if Lakshmi cried at all during our interview. But I nearly did with her response to this question. I really struggled against the tears welling up in my eyes. And it took all effort to keep my voice strong for the next question.

I could take the sad stories of her husband beating and harassing her. Of her three-year abandonment just after her daughter was born. Of her brother-in-laws harassing her daily and stealing her land. Of the time her children found her when she had taken all those pills. But when it came to the topic of her children’s futures, I broke.

Note: please read my reply for further discussion of HIV and the stigmas facing patients.

Fundraising Campaign for India’s Widows

I recently launched a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo to raise money for the research I have been doing on widows in rural Andhra Pradesh, India. As the followers of my blog know, the state of widowhood here is pretty dire. I have been deeply moved by the stories that I have heard and would like to try to help widows and future widows in the area. In order to do this, I am expanding my research to get a more accurate picture of problems faced by these widows (while many of the stories I heard from the forty-eight widows are similar, I do not want my work to be brushed off as anecdotal evidence) and generate ideas about how to solve these problems. As my campaign will not be funded unless I reach my goal by December 25 at 11:59 pm PT, I set my goal low to be a minimum of $500. I am so far thrilled with the generosity of my donors and, after only two days of the campaign, am already 45% funded! Any money raised over my $500 goal will be happily accepted and put to good use setting up and funding programs to improve the lives of widows with the help of BIRDS and the established system of community health workers. Please consider donating to my campaign and/or sharing it with friends! Thank you for your generosity and support!

Prostitution, AIDS, and a double dose of widowhood

image Today I met with an old widow in her seventies. With her came two small, sad-looking boys. Shortly after our interview began, Mahdevi, the CHW for this village, came and briefly informed me of recent happenings in this woman’s life. From talking both with Mahdevi and the widow, her story (and the story of the children) came out.

One week ago, the boy’s mother left her three children with their homeless grandmother (the third grandchild, age twelve, was off working in the fields). The mother had cut her hair and left the village presumably to go commit suicide. It took a lot of careful questioning and clarifying to get the full story. Here it is:

The widow’s daughter (the mother of these children) was a prostitute, and was also recently widowed. Her husband had died about a year ago from AIDS. This woman had supported her family through prostitution, had contracted AIDS (condoms are practically unheard of in rural India), and gave the disease to her husband (who potentially had forced her into prostitution in the first place).  After the death of her husband, she continued to support her family through prostitution. I cannot fathom the poverty and desperation that would drive a woman to knowingly spread death to her customers and their families. I can imagine that her pain was intense.

Recently, this woman became too sick and weak to work, and I guess it came out in the village that she was dying of AIDS. Disgraced and too poor and ashamed to do anything else, she cut her hair and ran away to die. So she left her three children, ages three, seven, and twelve, with her nearly blind, homeless, and helpless mother.

The grandmother doesn’t know what to do. She still tries to work in the fields, but her age and disabilities prevent her from doing much. She already struggles to feed herself and now has three additional mouths to feed. Her twelve-year-old granddaughter, a child laborer, also suffers from tuberculosis. Can this sick little girl support a family of four?

I was distraught by the sadness of this story and the looks on the children’s faces. They kept asking about their mother and did not fully grasp what had happened. I had brought a snack for myself (today I worked basically 9-5) but instead gave it to the children. I may have raised their lips into just the slightest smile, but I cannot be too sure. To the grandmother, I gave two-hundred rupees (about four dollars), twice the amount that I give other widows for their time. It isn’t much, but I hope it will help. The children will be taken to the hospital for HIV testing and may receive scholarships to attend school if there are any available. My thoughts are with all of the widows that I have interviewed (and those that I will never interview) and the families that they support.

An Introduction to Widowhood in Rural India


Interview with the first widowimageThe ten year old grandson

The first two days of interviews with widows were intense to stay the least. On my very first day, I went to an especially poor village about an hour south of Nandyal where I met and interviewed seven widows. The first widow was around seventy-five years old and came with a small boy. This boy was one of the saddest looking children I have ever seen–especially in contrast to the happy, confident children I interact with daily at the BIRDS school. This tiny-ten year old was the orphaned grandson of this widow. Not only had she lost her husband (and with her husband her identity in village life), she also lost all of her children–including this boy’s parents (I think she said that they both died in an accident). This little boy is all she has left. So, this widow, virtually alone in this world and too old  and sick to work, supports herself and her grandson by begging door to door. Through begging, she somehow manages to send her grandson to the local school. She told me with tears in her eyes that she only eats when and if food is given to her and that her grandson is the only thing in this world that keeps her alive. This woman, like all the other widows I interviewed, was severely depressed (understandably so) and broke down several times as she told me the sad story her life.

This same day, I spoke with another widow who also supports her three grandchildren. After the death of her son, her daughter-in-law ran off with another man from a different village, leaving the eighty year old widow to provide shelter, food, and schooling for her children. This widow was slightly better off financially in that she owns a small amount of land that she is able to lease and scrape a living from the proceeds. She has a living son who is either handicapped mentally or physically (or both) and wanders village to village begging. Every few weeks, he comes to stay with his mother, who he assaults verbally (accusing his poor mother of terrible things) and frequently beats. This woman also cried as she told me her story, especially when she told me about her living son.

The stories I heard were hauntingly similar with little difference between those told by thirty year old and eighty-two year old widows. All of them spoke of being excluded from both family functions and religious celebrations. The villagers harass them and believe that even walking past a widow is bad luck, a superstition similar to the western superstitions surrounding black cats. If a villager see a widow on his way to work, the villager curses her (“Why do you cross my path?!”), returns home, and starts his day anew hoping that he will avoid another encounter with a widow. If his day doesn’t turn out as planned, he blames the widow for his misfortune. One can visibly see the effects that this superstition has on widows–they cower in their movements, creating for themselves an almost shadow-like existence.

In my first day, five of the seven women broke into tears at some point during the interview. I wanted to comfort their shriveled bodies, offering them a shoulder on which to cry. I wanted to hold their hand and tell them that things will get better. But I couldn’t. Because it won’t. Instead, I sat there awkwardly wishing I could do something, feeling just as helpless as the widows themselves.



The next day I went to a village that was slightly better off (or perhaps I was just hardened by my first day so that day two did not seem so bad). This being said, of the fifteen widows that I have interviewed so far, fourteen of them said that they sometimes feel that life is not worth living (some feel this way occasionally while some feel it everyday). Not so shockingly, these women have no hope for their futures (even the young widows). They feel utterly helpless. Their only hope lies in the dream that the lives of their children and grandchildren will not contain as much suffering as their own lives. To soften her sadness, one woman told me that she prays for death to release her from her shackled existence.

These two days were emotionally very difficult for me. I have worked in difficult situations in the past including working with children with cancer and with parents attempting to cope with the fact that they might loose their child. But these experiences did not come close to the intensity of talking with these widows, who have been shunned from everything they know. I could feel their pain and suffering.

After my first day of interviews, I found out that my interviews are helping to identify the worst cases who will then be offered help. For example, the first widow I met with who cared for her grandson will be offered food, shelter, and schooling for her grandson at the BIRDS school (from a generous sponsorship). Another woman, who was perhaps forty-five years old (not a widow but abandoned by her husband and thus subjected to the same torments of widowhood) and homeless, will be offered a job as a sweeper at BIRDS. If these women accept these offers, they will be cared for physically and emotionally by the BIRDS community. For these few women, life will improve.

However, simply offering charity to these women is not enough as the problem is too widespread and charity touches too few. Instead, the culture and social structure (including the poverty that drives it) surrounding women and widowhood must change. Until then, India’s widows will continue to suffer.

In a future post, I will write more about the historical and social structures surrounding women and widowhood in India.

Note: I am aware of the dangers of being a cultural imperialist. However, I see the treatment of India’s widows as a violation of human rights and I strongly feel that something needs to change for these women.


An Introduction to Health in Rural India


In the last two days, I have interviewed seventeen community health workers (CHW) with the aid of a Telugu translator. The organization I am working with, BIRDS, employs about fifty of these women to assess the health of their communities. Each day, the CHW goes door to door in her village to make sure everyone is in good health and to see whether anyone needs assistance. One day a week, the CHW gathers those in need of a doctor and, along with other CHWs in her cluster (there are four clusters of CHW, covering a total of forty villages), takes about sixty rural villagers to a hospital in a nearby city. At the hospital, she must talk with doctors about the needs of each patient and negotiate prices with the billing department. She then takes the patients who were not admitted home and, in her spare time (if she has any), visits the admitted patients.

The work is hard. Almost every woman that I spoke with complained about the long days and the trouble her work (and long days) cause with her husband. The women also wish that they had more time with their children. One Muslim woman spoke about the convincing she had to do in order to make her husband feel comfortable with her leaving the house as an unaccompanied female. Another woman complained that at times she neglects her housework as she believes that providing healthcare to those in need is more important. Despite these difficulties, they all smiled and spoke with pride about their work and how good it made them feel to help those in need.

Their work makes them someone in the village, giving them a place of respect that, as low caste women, they otherwise wouldn’t have. Women flock to the homes of the CHW to discuss their problems and receive health advice, and patients and families constantly show their gratitude. They love their jobs and are thankful for the education and employment given to them by BIRDS.

But the situations they deal with day to day are heartbreaking.

An old man falls and breaks his leg on the side of the road, and no one stops to help him. The CHW finds him and he tells her that he is an old man and that she shouldn’t waste her time or money on him. She pleads with him and finally convinces him to let her take him to the hospital. He requires an operation that places a rod into his leg. During his week stay at the hospital, the CHW is his only visitor. The old man cries as he thanks her. Over the past two days, I have heard seventeen stories like this and will likely hear seventeen more over the next two days of interviewing CHW.

Despite the heartbreaking stories, I am loving this work. I find every word fascinating as I attempt to piece together the lives of women in rural India. It is wonderful to be researching, once again, a topic with so many complexities. This week’s interviews have allowed me to gain general information about the social and health problems plaguing each village, while providing much needed practice in my interviewing skills. Next week, I will begin my interviews with widows from the villages.

From my conversations with the CHW, the situation with the widows is pretty dire. As remarriage is not an option, widows must provide for their families single handedly and fend for themselves. In order to send their children to school (or allow their grandchildren to go to school), they starve themselves. Subsequently, they frequently suffer from malnutrition and anemia. As work in the fields is long and hard for little pay, many widows turn to prostitution in order to support their families. This new venture brings a whole slew of new problems–from infections to discrimination (discrimination against prostitution on top of discrimination against gender, caste, and widowhood). More on widows after I begin those interviews…

Beautiful children reminding that its not all bad…

Children enthralled by my tablet