A Closer Look at Finding Jobs for Young Widows: Tamilarasi

By Kathryn Renna

The Shanthimalai Handicrafts Development Society in Tiruvannamalai, South India, offers job training and employment to widows and other destitute women who have nowhere else to turn. Over 200 women are currently employed by the Society, producing fine handicrafts in their home villages and at the Premalaya handicrafts center in Tiruvannamalai.

As word spreads about the program, many more women than Shanthimalai can hire are coming forward, desperate for work. In response, Shanthimalai has begun to connect younger widows with local housekeeping jobs at hotels and private homes. In the last six months, the Shanthimalai team has identified 90 village women who might benefit from this program.

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One of these young widows is Tamilarasi. On a sunny afternoon, I meet with her and her son, Gobi, in a cool corner at Premalaya. With the help of kind translators, and surrounded by brightly colored Fair Trade textiles and gifts, they share their story with me.

Tamilarasi

Like many women of her generation in India, Tamilarasi did not attend school as a girl and cannot read. Her husband, a bamboo merchant, took care of Tamilarasi, her son, and two daughters. When he died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2011, the family was left heartbroken and without means of financial support.

Tamilarasi's brother-in-law took care of the family for some time, but difficulties arose. Because her family had helped finance the purchase, Tamilarasi inherited from her husband a 3,000-square-foot piece of land in Tiru. Her brother-in-law wanted to get close to her and convince her to sell. The young widow refused, and kept the land as an investment for her children's future. She is since estranged from the brother-in-law and without his support.

Tamilarasi's oldest daughter is now married and living with her husband's family, but her 18-year-old daughter, Kalpana, lives at home. She studies mathematics and is enrolled in the Professional Training Program (PTP) sponsored by Aruna Partnership.

Tamilarasi's son Gobi, 20, was recently accepted into the government medical school at Thanjavur, 200 kilometers from Tiruvannamalai. He passed the country's very difficult medical school entrance exam (NEET) with flying colors, a major accomplishment in any country but especially in India, where the field is exceedingly competitive. Medical school, however, comes at a significant cost: around 30,000 rupees annually for tuition and fees, and another 70,000 per year for room and board.

To help pay for Gobi's education, Shanthimalai found Tamilarasi a job cleaning and cooking at a private home in the area. It is hard, physical work for the 40-year-old, who arrives at the house at 8am and doesn't leave until 7pm, but she is very thankful for the opportunity. She knows how challenging it is to find a job like this. Without the cultural protection of their husbands, widows are at risk of abuse in domestic work situations. It means so much to her that Shanthimalai was able to find a secure, safe household for her placement.

In India, housekeeping is considered good work with average pay, but there are complicating factors for poor widows and village women like those helped by Shanthimalai. First is transportation. Tamilarasi is lucky to live in Karai village within walking distance of her new employer. However, many women who live in remote villages must travel long distances, often by bus, to get to these jobs in town. Not only does bus fare erode their take-home pay, but the commute makes for a very long day-especially difficult for women who still have children at home.

Tamilarasi makes 3,500 rupees a month (roughly $50). It's not enough to pay for all of Gobi's educational expenses, but it's a start. Without his mother's job, says Gobi, his family would currently have no income at all, and he would not be able to attend medical school. Although he is clearly saddened by his family's situation, getting into medical school has built his confidence. He plans to specialize in cardiology and return to Tiruvannamalai, where it is easy to imagine him affectionately known someday as Dr. Gobi.

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Shanthimalai will help Tamilarasi look for higher-paying housekeeping work. In the meantime, if a position opens up at Shanthimalai Handicrafts, they will give her a job there.

I can only imagine the hardships that Tamilarasi and Gobi face. Fierce love shines through them both. When I ask Tamilarasi what her hopes are for the future, she answers that they rest in her children's education. Her loving self-sacrifice is part of a powerful circle of caring: the community caring for the mother, who cares for the son, who will one day care for the community.