To mark International Women’s Day (8 March), we’re taking a look at a church-based program in India that is helping tens of thousands of widows each year to lift themselves out of poverty and isolation – the fate that awaits many Indian women who lose their husbands.

Widows in India suffer. It is the culture here.
Esther Rani Lakshmi

Esther, having become a Christian through a church-run tailoring class, went onto Bible College where she met her husband, with whom she had two children.

Marking International Womens Day - Esther

Pastor Esther Rani lost her husband to an AIDS-related illness and is HIV-positive herself. She was helped by the Bible Society of India’s ‘Hope Givers’ program, and now leads a small church and helps other widows to find support and comfort, too.

The fact that her husband died of an AIDS-related illness meant that Esther faced even more rejection from her family and community than the amount usually faced by widows here. But she found love and support through the ‘Hope Givers’ program, run by the Bible Society of India. Even when she tested positive for HIV – a huge stigma in India – Esther saw it as another way in which she could help others in the same position.

Dignity and hope for India’s ‘blamed and rejected’ widows

One of the most powerful effects of the program is that the women who are helped go on to help others, becoming ‘hope givers’ themselves. Esther now pastors a small church, speaks openly about her HIV status and is a volunteer in the program, which provides much-needed practical, emotional and spiritual support to widows in five provinces.

You are widowed because you did something wrong in your previous life: that is the view in this predominantly Hindu culture. So, whether a widow is from a rich or poor background, she faces blame, mistreatment and rejection by her family. Many are kicked out of their homes and left to fend for themselves and their children, leaving them in a desperate situation.
Dr Leelavathi Manasseh, a director at the Bible Society

Hope Givers

The program runs workshops to equip women with income-generating skills such as juice-making and candle-making, provides counselling and helps the women access the government support they are entitled to. It also provides Scriptures and runs Bible study groups to help them understand their worth and purpose in God’s eyes.

We help the widows in whatever way they need – sometimes it’s a meal, sometimes it’s just someone to talk to. When they ask, ‘Why are you helping me?’ we tell them about Jesus and his great love for widows, children and other vulnerable people. This is a surprising message for them, and they want to know more. They are very open to the Gospel.

International Womens Day - Ruth

Ruth endured 50 years of an abusive marriage. She says that although she has children who support her, she worries about other widows who don’t have help.

56-year-old Glory admits that she was relieved when her husband died 10 years ago because he treated her very badly. Although she lives with her sons, she has a lot of anxiety about her situation and really appreciates the spiritual and emotional support she receives through the program.

“My favourite Bible verse is Psalm 34:5,” she smiles, quoting, “The oppressed look to him and are glad; they will never be disappointed.”

Ruth has scars on her wrist and thigh from wounds inflicted by her violent husband, who died 12 years ago, after 50 years of marriage.

“I have four children who support me but so many other widows don’t have that,” she says. “I pray for their happiness and that they will come to God.”