I recently had the pleasure of meeting a group of eight Bengali women at the Tonybee Hall, a community organisation that aims to build a strong local community and improve people’s well being in the East End of London. They had gathered to meet me so they can share their life stories, experiences and concerns especially regarding the harsh winter season.
All of them were widows over fifty, living on their own with minimum or no financial support from their family members. Although they belonged to different families, their problems were similar.
Every woman in the group agreed that winter is particularly difficult for them as they being older need constant care to avoid severe illnesses. Every one mutually pointed out the rise in the electricity and gas bills during winter which makes it extremely difficult for them to manage their domestic budget while living on benefits.
They all use items such as hot water bottles, blankets, hats and scarves to keep themselves warm as they can’t often use their heating due to the increasing cost of energy bills. Upon enquiry, I learnt that in circumstances when these women have exhausted their entire pension or benefit income on paying bills, they have to ask help from relatives and neighbours for other living costs.
The group leader, Ruphia Begum explained to me that in Asian culture there are lots of gift exchanges on the occasion of family get gatherings, marriages, religious festivals and birthdays. Therefore, it becomes even more difficult to manage the domestic expenses along with the payment of escalating energy prices.
A few of the women received the ‘keep warm kits’ last year from Muslim Aid which included items such as woolly hats, blankets, socks, mufflers, heater, hot water bottle and gloves. Those who didn’t get the ‘keep warm kits’ were very interested in receiving it this year. Khairune Nessa, 74, said: “I thank all the donors and Muslim Aid. I use the blanket to cover my feet and keep me warm when I watch TV.’’
A 75 year-old Surjaban Bibi lives alone and has a carer who comes in the morning to give her a bath. But she has to do the cooking, washing and cleaning herself and fears falling ill at night when she is all alone. She finds the ‘keep warm kits’ very useful during winter. She said: “When it is cold, all I can think about is the payment for electricity and gas bills. I have to often ask my neighbours for financial support after I have paid my bills. It is important to keep the house warm so that I don’t get sick. I want the winter clothing from Muslim Aid this year too. It will help me in protecting myself from the cold.’’
Mayarun Nessa, 55, added: “I will eat less but keep a budget for paying my energy bills. I live alone and my step children come to see me sometimes. I fear that day when they will stop coming to see me. I constantly feel depressed about having no support system and in winter I really depend on the clothes and other items given to me by neighbours and charities to keep myself warm.’’
The stories of these women reflect the concerns of many vulnerable elderly people suffering from harsh winter conditions, social exclusion as they live alone and medical illness which can get worse due to inadequate heating and winter clothing. These women are among 3.5 million older people who are worried about the increasing energy cost.
The vulnerable, elderly and homeless people might not have heard of the term fuel poverty but they are adversely affected by it. Fuel poverty refers to a situation when the income left after paying for energy bills is below poverty line. The distribution of Muslim Aid’s ‘keeps warm kits’ aim to give such vulnerable elderly comfort during the severe cold. It also helps them to control their energy bills and refrain from winter illnesses to an extent.
By: Amal Imad
Information and Public Affairs Department