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Lord Loomba and Baroness d’ Souza at the House of Lords

I have recently joined the Entrepreneurship Development committee of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, an organization that promotes women’s economic empowerment through entrepreneurship.  Based in London, the CBFW has business support and mentorship programs, in addition to doing research on women and potential economic avenues, such as their recent collaborative studies with GSMA on the mobile telephone industry in the developing world.

I am pleased to be on the committee no matter what, but it did add a certain sparkle when CBFW invited me to a reception at the House of Lords, which took place last week.  I had never been there, except to walk past as a tourist.  It was a clear night and Big Ben glowed above the skyline.  I felt really fortunate.

The Lord Speaker (who is a woman, Baroness d’Souza) gave the main remarks, telling us the story of her political career, which actually evolved from her earlier time in academia.  She told of how frustrating she found the limited viewpoints in the universities (I felt a lot of sympathy for what she said).  Even though she had tenure–a very big deal and a sign of her success–she left and went to do work she felt would be more meaningful.  The baroness told us about her early independent research, done after leaving the university system, on the economics of poor communities.  She made some very insightful comments about what she discovered of the way people behave in a food shortage–the merchants hoard and people start selling off their assets, magnifying and compounding the situation until it goes from difficult to dire.  I was impressed with her rigor, but also with her empathy.  I could see how someone so passionate and so competent would eventually move up into a leadership position.

Lord Loomba introduced Baroness d’Souza. Lord Loomba’s foundation supports widows in India.  He himself is the son of a widow, one of seven children.  He experienced first-hand the isolation and impoverishment that comes from the way India treats widows.

When a woman is widowed in India, she loses her identity along with her husband.  Her family, viewing her as an economic and social liability, casts her out, essentially condemning her to begging or starving.  Many of them never see their families again.  They wander the streets, frightened, alone, and malnourished.  The Indian example is the ultimate manifestation of the utter dependency that cultures around the world have imposed upon women by not letting them be part of the main economy, instead strictly defining their “role” in terms of marital and reproductive service.  There are 40 million Indian widows in this condition–10% of the total female population in the country.

"Water" is the last in Mehta's "Elements Trilogy," which includes "Fire" (1996) and "Earth" (1998).

I am ashamed to say that I only first learned about this situation in 2005, when I saw “Water,” a beautiful and moving film directed by Deepa Mehta.  However, I was shaken by the film and very much affected by the knowledge of this injustice.  So, I felt very fortunate to have chance to speak to Lord Loomba.

“Raj” Loomba himself has an impressive story.  He moved to the UK from India in the 1960s and built a fashion business from a stall at Widnes market.  His company, Rinku Group, Ltd., now has over 200 retail concession outlets in the UK, as well having offices in London, Delhi, and China.

But the part I am most impressed about is the way he remembered his mother’s struggle.  Lord Loomba was the key force behind the founding of International Widow’s Day, done by unanimous acclaim of the United Nations General Assembly in 2010.  The commemorative day, June 23, is the day that Loomba’s mother was widowed.


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