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Widows in India: A Poor, Lonely and Ostracised Citizenry

Posted on May 15, 2012 in Society

By Girija S. Semuwal:

Oh Unfreedom, how ubiquitous you are and how many myriad forms you have!
How you keep us chained in our own pathetic notions of what life is…

If you are widowed in India, then you might just be living a half-life. You merely exist in the shadows of society, ignored and ostracized. Maybe only the Almighty is left as your companion.

Such is the fate of many among the 40 odd million women in India, especially those who belong to upper-caste, low economic backgrounds. They live alone and in poverty after the death of their husbands.

Historically, traditions like ‘widow-burning’ or Sati characterized the norms of Hindu society for widows. The treatment they got was extremely discriminatory and inhuman. Practices such as Sati were abolished during the British rule and in 1856 the British legalized widow remarriage in India. A century and a half has passed away since then; Indian Independence has happened, economic liberalization and globalization have transformed our basic cultural system. Yet, widows still lead a miserable and pitiable life in many towns of India.

Their condition is especially bad in West Bengal. They face a variety of societal taboos everyday and practice austerity and self-denial. The traditional belief here is that once your husband dies, you must denounce worldly pleasures. They wear plain white saris as a sign of mourning for as long as they live and must abide by severe diet restrictions. Their presence at rituals, ceremonies and celebrations is considered inauspicious.

Those coming from orthodox families, in some cases, even shave their heads. In many parts of South India, the practice of not wearing a blouse under one’s sari is still prevalent among widows. Tradition necessitates that their countenance communicates solitude, destitution and sorrow.

The cities of Vrindavan and Varanasi – referred to as the “widow cities” of India – welcome thousands of widows every year; those who have no other place left to go. These cities are home to a large number of dingy, suffocated, guest houses and “ashrams” where impoverished and abandoned widows spend the remainder of their lives.

In such places, young widows are often sexually exploited or enter prostitution. Elderly widows are reduced to begging outside temples or busy streets. Such widows don’t have roofs over their heads. It’s believed that about 15,000 of them live on the streets of Vrindavan, which makes a large majority of the 55, 000 people who live there.

Some are fortunate enough to be allowed in bhajanashrams where “they may sit in shifts to chant prayers – for a 4-hour shift they can earn a cup of rice and about 7 rupees”. But most old widows suffer from ailments of all kinds and have nobody to look after them. They must fend for themselves in every way, whether it’s earning or doing chores. The situation is more extreme within some of India’s tradition-bound rural areas. There, marginalization and destitution is a certainty if a woman is widowed.

Leaving aside societal stigmas, economic problems could be addressed to some extent by formulating welfare schemes for widows. But facts reveal those that currently exist are poorly implemented. Only about 28 percent of the widows in India are eligible for pensions and even among them less than 11 percent actually receive their dues.

In the absence of financial independence, their hardships only increase. This is one of the major reasons behind their ouster from home — because they’re seen as a financial drain on their families.

A tiny ray of hope, however, has made its way recently as the Supreme Court of India has appointed a seven-member panel to collect data on the socio-economic conditions of widows in Uttar Pradesh, taking note of their “pitiable condition”. The committee is to conduct an enumeration of the widows living in the city within eight weeks. The SC bench has taken note of the need for “immediate steps for their rehabilitation and better living”.

But the real voice for change must come from within the society, and the first step would be a change of the fatalistic and superstitious mindset that abhors widows and deprives them of their right to live. If we see human beings as disposable entities then we have done the greatest disservice to whoever we worship, for the message of the almighty power is that the greatest worship is serving and loving humanity.