Widows of India Status and Empowerment (WISE)

WISE logo After being invited to come teach in a ministry training some years ago, our Center Director signed on as a member of the online teaching staff. In addition, we worked with YWAM in Trichy specifically on behalf of Widows, in what we coined as the Widows of India Status and Empowerment (WISE) project. For a few years, the project focused on widows, then the leadership moved to Mumbai, and the new Trichy leadership decided it was best to focus on women in a more general way.

This proof-of-concept project had multiple goals:

  • Empower a group of widows in India in a way that really works to uplift and transform their lives.
  • Provide our partner in India, YWAM Trichy's School of Urban Mission, a hands-on teaching tool, for use with students of transformational ministry.
  • Document a replicable model for hope at the grass roots.

We brainstormed with the widows themselves, who chose sewing from a number of possible options. We worked in partnership with a local tailor shop to film "how to" videos and developed a partnership with YWAM Trichy who ran this and other compassionate outreach ministries in southern India.

We also wanted to create a real teaching platform for the Seven Pillar methodology for making lasting, measurable, positive change. And, as YWAM Trichy's School of Urban Mission taught others how it was done, our hope is that others would follow, and the model would spread to other areas, uplifting many more widows in the process. Below, widows watch a video sewing lesson from Adam the Tailor:

Key Facts

  • There are approximately 40 million widows in India, and many are abandoned, losing social and financial status, "living off charity while they wait to die." 1
  • Widowhood in India is considered a curse, so much so that even a widow's shadow is considered unlucky.2
  • Although the practice of sati in India – the burning of the wife on her dead husband's funeral pyre – officially ended in the middle of the 19th century, widowhood is considered a "living sati," and mortality rates are higher among widows than among married women.3

Research Questions

We began with many questions, such as: Can we be of help, involving widows in their own choice of solution? Will their own choice of a sewing center be the best way to provide status and empowerment to these particular widows in southern India? Can we keep tight enough records, at a distance, to comfortably say this is a replicable project? That is, by employing the action research method for this project, has our team – in partnership with YWAM Trichy – will we truly be able to point out conclusively that such efforts can help widows in India can have a better life? At the forefront of our thoughts throughout this small project has been a much broader question: Is the provision of marketable skills and self-support as wage earners enough to shift societal perceptions about them, their value, and their status? And, in what other ways can we be involved, at a distance, in supporting these widowed women in shifting values and norms in their favor?

Project Outcomes

We will feel this small project is a success if it empowers any of these widows to support themselves, provides the dignity of earned income through skill, and enhances their sense of self-worth. We documented our efforts in hopes that this project would be replicated by others, in India or beyond. We thank you for your prayers of support, your generous heart for the "widows and orphans" of the world, and your interest in this project in particular.

Project History

During a trip to India in 2013 to teach ministry and social entrepreneurship methodology, our Center Director and key team members also met with a group of widows outside of Tiruchirappali, in Tamil Nadu, who are being assisted with their survival needs by a ministry of YWAM Trichy, led by A. Marimuthu. These widows touched our hearts, and we decided to respond. We called our response the Widows of India Status and Empowerment project, because we liked the acronym, "wise." Here are a few key milestones:

  • Assign a Project Manager: We assigned a team member from within the group that had traveled to India initially, as a project manager. She received support and guidance from our Center Director and others, including Mike Dalling, who designed our beautiful WISE Logo. And so, the WISE Project was born, in 2013.
  • Brainstorm Key Ideas: We brainstormed ideas of ways we might be able to help. From what we felt we might be able to possibly achieve, we asked the widows themselves to ring in with their own thoughts about what would interest them. They were most interested in sewing, so that was the direction the project took. Brainstorming didn't stop there, however. Once we had a focus, our project manager reached out to others who had created such international sewing projects, for their guidance and wisdom.
  • Enlist Partners: We enlisted the help of Adam Arpaci, of Adam's Fine Tailoring in Burlingame, a long-time friend, who graciously agreed to record lessons.
  • Create Educational Resources: Educational videos were recorded in 2014. In the studios of Elfenworks Productions, LLC, we created a theme and a logo for the project. Our editor, Janice Rivera, added the introductions and transitions, finalized the videos, and posted them online. The lessons are now ready for use in India, as part of a sewing curriculum. They were used for the first group of students, who graduated in December, 2015. Here is the WISE Sewing Technique Playlist (6 videos):
  • Local Capacity Building – Step 1: The Grounds: Our partner in India – YWAM Trichy – where the sewing classes will be taught, and hiring the teacher who will lead the classes. As of November 8, 2014 they had hired a lead engineer and started to clear the land and dig the ground for the foundation. Hard rains had stalled their efforts for a while, but they got back on track. Eventually, they succeeded in completing the project, despite the setback. They successfully built a building.
  • Local Capacity Building – Step 2 – Sewing Center Arrives: The sewing machines were purchased, built and installed. Expectation swelled, and the excitement was palpable. We could close our eyes, and just imagine the first group of students sitting on the stools, ready to attend their first lessons.
  • Liftoff! Sewing Class Begins: In July of 2015 we received word thanking us for our love and prayers and wishing us well. We're informed that classes have begun, they're doing well, and, by the grace of God, their ministries are proceeding along well, with hopes to train "many more people." Hooray! Then, in August, we received the first images of our partners in India and the first group of students, watching the videos we'd created for them. Who says you can't export hope?
  • Expansion Begins: In 2016 we received word that YWAM Trichy were ready and able to expand their efforts with two additional sewing centers. Graduations at the original Center continue, with three so far as of March, 2017.
  • The Work Continues: Our partner writes (as of March, 2017): "The WISE project is going well.We have about 9 ladies who have completed their course (just now).We have 12 currently enrolled in the class now.They are very smart and learning fast. They are able to use the skills to have a decent life and their lives are transformed. Some of them are working in some tailoring centres and earn a living.Others started working from their homes using the skills. Thank you so much for all that (you are) doing for these precious ladies."

Biblical Perspective

The Bible is clear on the importance of care for the "widow and the orphan." Jesus expressed particular care for widows, holding a widow's small offering as greater than that of others (Mark 12:41-44), and restoring the life of a widow's only son, so that she would not be entirely alone and destitute (Luke 7:11-15).

Although the Bible isn't explicit, scholars agree that Mary, mother of Jesus, was likely widowed during Jesus' lifetime. Joseph isn't referenced anywhere after Jesus' twelfth birthday (Luke 2:41-51). Although silence doesn't equal certainty, most scholars then point to Jesus' own words, on the cross, entrusting the care of his mother to another:

When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home. (John 19:26-27)

In the patriarchal society of the time, the care of women was entrusted to their husbands or, in the case of widows, their sons. Jesus' statement would not make any sense if Mary were still in the care of her husband at that time. It only makes sense in the case of Mary being a widow and in Jesus' care.

As the Song of Mary states:

For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: For, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. (Luke 1:48)

That being the case, Mary is a blessed widow. That means it's impossible for all widows to be cursed. Because Mary is indeed considered blessed, it logically follows that a person can be both blessed and a widow. That is, to be a widow is not a curse from God.

That's an example of a quick exegesis (approach to scripture) on behalf of this underdog group. We think of it as "nonharming exegesis" where we define nonharming as having an eye towards active harm prevention, and a preference for the underdog. Try nonharming exegesis… you'll love it!

Bottom Line

Furthering the advancement of "widows and orphans" is a clear way to honor a commitment to discipleship. And with partnership, planning, and elbow grease, it's a rewarding path to joy, as well.

1 BBC News. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-24490252. Online and accessed January 9, 2014.
2 Los Angeles Times. http://articles.latimes.com/2012/oct/16/world/la-fg-india-widows-20121016. Online and accessed January 9, 2014.
3 The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/jun/30/india-city-widows-discrimination. Online and accessed January 9, 2014.
See also: http://www.womenundersiegeproject.org/blog/entry/the-ongoing-tragedy-of-indias-widows.

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