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Plight of widows

First lady to goat herd


In what promises to be a trafficstopping act, Cherie Blair, wife of the former British PM Tony Blair, will herd goats across the London Bridge next Saturday. In an interview with TOI-Crest, she says she wants to draw attention to the plight of widows across the world, and especially in India.

On June 23 you will be herding a pack of goats across London Bridge to mark International Widows' Day. Was it your idea?

In fact I first went on a charity walk during my school days and I have done other similar walks since. But this will be very different. I will be exercising, on behalf of Raj Loomba, a Freeman of the City of London, his ancient right as a Freeman to herd livestock - in this case goats - across London Bridge. I'm not sure how you prepare for herding goats! My only experience of herding anything so far is the same as for most parents, I suspect - herding the occasional group of children. So goats will be a whole new challenge, which I'm looking forward to, though with some nervousness!

Why goats? For many widows in South Asia and across Africa, owning a goat is often a lifeline - providing milk and sometimes meat for an impoverished family. And though the Loomba Foundation hasn't yet bought goats for widows, it's certainly considering it.

You are a regular India visitor. What attracts you to the country?

From my teenage years I have been fascinated by India, so it was a great thrill when I made my first visit in the 1990s, and I've been back many times since. One of my closest friends - when I was a student at the London School of Economics - was Lady Veena Williams who, though she came from a South African Indian family, taught me a lot about Indian culture. Through her family and later, after I began to visit India, I came to appreciate its vibrancy, its people and its energy. It was Veena's family which introduced me to Indian food and I vividly remember one day in the mid-1970 s her father taking me for a meal to a South Indian restaurant in London where the food was totally new to me, but completely delicious. And we ate with our hands, which made me think for the first time about our physical relationship with food.
On the bus journey home however, I also saw the meaner side of life, as we encountered mutterings and dirty looks when we got on the bus together. It was an early glimpse for me of race discrimination in practice and I was shocked. I am delighted that such an experience would be rare today and would not be tolerated on any bus journey in London. The Asian community in the UK also has very close connections to the Labour Party and so my love affair with India continues here too.

You are the president of a charity outfit founded by Raj Loomba. Tell us about your work.

The Loomba Foundation, in its 13 years of working in India, now educates the children of poor widows in 16 states. In many cultures, when a woman is widowed she loses not only her income, but often her rights and her status in society and within her community. And of course her children suffer the same plunge into poverty and stigma. So we not only support each child for a minimum of five years by paying a stipend to the mother so she can feed the child and pay his or her education expenses, but we also help young widows get training for an occupation, such as hairdressing and grooming, that will allow them to earn money to keep the whole family.

Part of our work also involves campaigning for the rights of widows worldwide, which has led to the UN formally recognising June 23 as International Widows' Day, and the first official International Widows' Day took place last year. June 23 has a special significance for the Loomba Foundation because it was on this day in 1954 that Raj Loomba's mother became a widow. This year on June 23, we are launching a new project to provide 10, 000 widows with a sewing machine and training in how to use it.

Your book, 'Speaking For Myself', includes very frank and blasê accounts of some of the events during your years as the First Lady. What was going on in your mind when you decided to reveal it all?

The title of my book says it all. While I was the wife of the Prime Minister it was not appropriate for me to speak on my own behalf - it was my husband who had been elected and not I. But when I became a private person again, I felt that my journey from working class Liverpool to No 10 Downing Street and my career as a barrister was a not untypical tale of how in the second half of the 20th century life opportunities for women in the UK opened up in a way not experienced by my mother and grandmother. It was my aim to write a book not only for women but to some extent in the way in which women often talk to each other.

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