Taking place annually on 23 June, International Widow’s Day is a UN ratified event which puts the emphasis on the poverty and injustice faced by millions of widows and their dependents in many countries. This year, one thousand people joined a charity run across London’s Hyde Park to raise money for this cause. Taking centre stage in the proceedings was Lord Loomba, the founder of this prolific effort.
The plight of widows is a cause very dear to Lord Loomba’s heart. When his father passed away, he left his mother alone with seven children to support at the age of 37. Fortunately, his father had been a successful businessman, and in terms of monetary support, the family he left behind was well looked after. However, from the moment his father passed, Lord Loomba saw his mother’s life turned upside down.
It was as though in becoming a widow, her entire identity was ripped away.
It was as though in becoming a widow, her entire identity was ripped away. His Grandmother, herself a widow, ordered her to remove her jewellery, bindi, and don white clothes. In later years, when Lord Loomba grew up and got married, the priest made his mother move away from the altar, claiming that she would bring bad luck to the couple as she was a widow. These events angered and tormented him, and ultimately were the catalyst for Lord Loomba’s foundation. As he explains, “How could someone who cared for me and wished me well be bad luck for us? From this day on I was driven to make a difference.”
His work started when I came to England in 1962. Though his mother had never been to school herself, she educated all her young children, including his sisters, in the fifties when Indian girls usually didn’t go to school. His mother valued learning and the welfare of her children and spent all her money on education.
Loomba reflects, “My mother came to live with us with nothing. When she passed away in 1992 I wanted to honour her as she sacrificed everything for the children and their welfare. Most people open an art show or something similar. But I thought my mother was no different to others, if she hadn’t been able to educate us, lord knows what I’d be doing now. So I started to focus on poor children in India in 1999. I soon realised this was a universal problem. I undertook to educate children in all 29 states in India.”
By 2006, he was working in all states in India, the first non- Indian charity to do so. After having for several years in India, he discovered India was not the only country to discriminate against widows. In fact, in some regions in Africa widow’s fates were far worse. Having lost their husbands to HIV, there women were forced to marry their brothers in law, who would then inherit everything that belonged to their brother. The women left widowed by this disease were usually infected too, so the families would take their possessions but shun them, leaving these widows destitute.
Making Widows a Global Issue
Millions of women live like this in Africa, and astonishingly this phenomenon had never been identified by any government or even the UN. Lord Loomba started to do a research study on the plight of widows, and was shocked to find that 245 million widows across the world suffer in silence, along with 500 million children.
As he puts it, “15% of the humanity on this planet was completely ignored. We work on research against HIV, cancer and the like, but they all still affect fewer people than this. So I thought the best thing to do was to launch a global day of action. My patron Cherie Blair suggested I name 23 June this day as this was when my mother was widowed. We formally launched this day at the House of Lords in 2005.”
When Lord Loomba approached the UN for the first time, Kofi Anan was shocked that the plight of international widows wasn’t even considered in UN goals, but resolute that action needed to be taken. On the 21st December 2010, the United Nations General Assembly formally adopted 23 June as International Widows Day, endorsing by unanimous acclaim a proposal introduced by President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon. As well as formally recognizing 23 June as a day of observance, the accompanying resolution called upon “Member States, the United Nations system and other international and regional organizations to give special attention to the situation of widows and their children.”
As Lord Loomba explains, when faced with these huge statistics, it’s easy to be daunted at the scale of the problem, but he believes that even the smallest efforts can add up to sea change. He encourages grass roots projects, such as organising local events to raise awareness of the issue. On a larger scale, he wants governments to set up dedicated help centres for widows in rural areas. With creativity and dedication, he believes that there are many ways in which philanthropists can help educate and empower.
Looking to the future, Lord Loomba is working to expand the work or his Foundation in South Asia, and South America, especially Guatemala. He tells AGI, “We want to keep working and will keep growing. In the next five to ten years no woman should suffer because she has lost her husband. We should all get together and empower, and if given the opportunity we can get together and help. Look at successful widows around the world- Sonia Ghandi, Oprah Winfrey. Widows are not handicapped, but made so by traditions, culture, superstitions.”