Interview with Dr. Mohini Giri
By: Dr. Mohini Giri
Publish Date: September
AARP: Dr. Giri, you are widely recognized on the international stage and in your country of India as an advocate and champion for the rights of widows, particularly those who have been impacted by conflict. How did this come to be your passion?
Dr. Giri: I have worked as a volunteer throughout my life and have always wanted to give back to the community. In 1971, after the Indo-Pakistani war my mother-in-law, who was then the First Lady of India, asked me to visit hospitals to assess the casualties of war caused by the conflict between India and Pakistan. Each dying soldier requested that I take care of the family members they leave behind. There is great reluctance in Indian society to acknowledge that our nation's 40 million widows are being treated improperly.
Widowhood is unfortunately highly stigmatized in India. The minute a woman loses her husband her life changes forever: She must dress differently, eat just once a day, and strive to look unattractive. There is even a city in India, Vrindahvan, that is dubbed "city of widows" because of the sheer number of abandoned widows seeking refuge there. There is great reluctance in Indian society to acknowledge that our nation's 40 million widows are being treated improperly.
I have helped these widows find shelter, employment and dignity. We just had a screening of the movie "White Rainbow" at the Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations of the United Nations in May, which is based on the work that my organization, Guild of Service, is doing to promote the rights of widows. The film is set to be released in New York City in October 2010.
AARP: What assistance is the government of India providing you in your endeavors?
Dr. Giri: Our advocacy efforts on behalf of widows have been fruitful and the government has effected some positive change. So far the government has provided land to ensure that each war widow receives shelter along with free compulsory education and a pension.
It is also important that war widows receive education and opportunities for employment. To this end, the government has made provisions for war widows to take ownership of gas stations, which has helped them immensely. In the area of pensions, the War Widows Association has fought a policy that mandates that individuals must return to their state of origin to be able to receive a pension. We believe that pensions should be available to war widows no matter where they reside. We have also drafted a uniform pension policy to ensure that pensions are equitable. This policy would ensure that military personnel below the rank of officer are entitled to equal pensions.
AARP: You were recently appointed chairperson of the Review Committee for India's National Policy of Older Persons. Could you elaborate on the policy and the specific role of the committee?
Dr. Giri: In 1999, the National Policy for Older Persons was introduced under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment as a measure to guarantee health care, social security, and employment for the elderly and to prevent their abuse and exploitation. Unfortunately, the implementation of the policy has been difficult. As chairperson of the Committee, I work with a team of three other members to ensure the implementation is successfully completed. With this in mind we are setting up sub-committees to promote national debates to receive feedback from the general population. For example, we must recognize that the needs of persons 80+ are different from those of the 70+ age group.
AARP: You have already shared your thoughts on India's widows. What is the current status of the elderly in India more generally speaking?
Dr. Giri: Recent progress in medicine and nutrition has increased longevity in India and this is a major achievement for the status of the elderly. Take me for example: I would not have lived this long if it weren't for my access to good medical care.
However, India's elderly still face many challenges. For example, more and more older women are being abused or killed as a result of violence by domestic help, family members, and others. Police visits have been a means to monitor the safety of the elderly. Also, welfare associations created by the civil society will keep track of older persons who may be living alone or are vulnerable and therefore at risk of being exploited. This is an initiative to promote awareness among the general public.
My organization is also building homes for the elderly, particularly since many women live alone and caregiving services remain a challenge in India. Alzheimer's disease is also a difficult challenge that we must address.
AARP: India is making strides in the global arena. In your opinion, what are the effects of globalization on older people in India?
Dr. Giri: Globalization has a different impact on developed and developing countries. In India, we want a globalization that allows people to live in harmony with other countries. There have been many positives for India, especially for women, as education is improving, new girls' colleges have been created and women become more employable. On the downside, globalization has had a less beneficial impact on intergenerational relationships. Younger persons no longer have time for the elderly and our traditional culture in which youth respect their elders is disintegrating.
AARP: The government of India recently presented you with the Padma Bhushan award for outstanding contribution in the field of Social Service. What does this mean to you?
Dr. Giri: The award means a lot to the women and widows I work with, who are all agents of social change. It gives me hope that we can stop conflict and create peace through this type of recognition.
Dr. V. Mohini Giri, a leader in the women's movement, specializes in human rights and gender justice in India and South Asia. She is known both nationally and internationally for her four decades of work in empowering women politically, socially, legally and economically. She serves as a courageous advocate for India's widows and other vulnerable constituencies.