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Understanding The Hindu Widowed Women Living In Varanasi

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The Supreme Court of India has declared triple talaq as unconstitutional in a judgement which is being considered as a milestone for women empowerment.  This decision will help many Muslim women to abstain from a life, which is at the mere will of her husband’s speech.

But, what about those women who are forced to live a pathetic life as widows due to death of their husbands?

If you are into the news, you would be fully ‘unaware‘ where I am going with this, because no news channel cares about them.

My article focuses on the empowerment of Hindu women who lead a terrible life after the death of their husbands.

If you visit Mathura, Vrindavan or Radhakund, you will surely notice, women in white, singing bhajans, relentlessly in temples and ashrams, sometimes continuously for seven to eight hours.

At first, one is quite impressed by their dedication towards the Lord, but if one digs a little deeper, one is startled to find out that for some of these ladies, it is their only source of money with which they can buy some food or pay their rent. The money we are talking about is not any handsome amount but a meagre amount of ₹18-20.

So, who are these women? What is their number? From where do they come? Why do they land in Vrindavan?

Let’s answer these questions one by one.

Who are these women?

These are mostly women who were married off to men double their age when they were very young. The men died owing to old age or any other reasons, leaving these women in complete despair and at the mercy of their children and the society who left no stone unturned to humiliate and agonise them. They were made to beg for food and were beaten up at will, forcing them to leave for Vrindavan.

But, Why Only Vrindavan?

This is where it gets interesting. No one knows the exact reason why these women started pouring in large numbers and chose this city out of the 4,000 cities of India.

This can be due to its close association with Lord Krishna. According to Srimad Bhagavatam, Krishna is believed to have 16,108 wives out of which eight were his principle wives, and 16,100 were his junior wives.

There is a fascinating story behind Krishna marrying these 16,100 women.

According to a legend, Krishna defeated a demon called Narakasura and released 16,100 women from his captivity. The woman’s husbands and families refused to accept them back as they had become polluted in the company of a demon.

The women then pleaded to Lord Krishna to accept them because nobody else was going to marry them. They threatened to commit suicide if he doesn’t accept them. Being trapped in dharma, Krishna accepted all women as his wives so that they live an honourable life and nobody dared to mock them.

Thus, all rejected and dejected women come to Vrindavan to seek Lord Krishna’s refuge so that they are born with a better fate in their next lives.

They also find the company of other women with same destiny here and hence can relate to them easily.

How Many Women Live Like This?

Well, no one knows their exact number. Some say there are about half a lakh women in the areas of Vrindavan, Radhakund alone, while others mark their number to be about 20,000. Whatever be their number, they are significantly visible in the localities of Vrindavan.

Where Do They Come From?

They come here, mostly, in large numbers, from the adjoining states of West Bengal and Bihar.

So, Do They Get What They Come Seeking? The Solace, Peace And An Escape From Society?

Unfortunately not. As religious service is incapable of compensating and supporting a livelihood, they just live for the sake of living here.

They can be easily spotted begging in different localities of the town. The hatred and dislike of the locals are quite evident against them, and the only people who come in support of them are tourists and pilgrims who help them for seeking some ‘spiritual’ merit’.

The ashrams in which some of these women find refuge are ill-equipped, over-crowded, and are a reservoir of deadly diseases like tuberculosis. There have also been reports of these ashrams promoting prostitution and trafficking of women.

Whats more saddening is the fact that these widows do not receive ‘humane‘ treatment even after death. Reportedly, the bodies of the deceased widows are disposed of by chopping them into pieces and packing in gunny bags.

But Where Is The Government? What Measures Have Been Taken To Improve The Lives Of These Women?

After much research on internet and newspapers, what I found was astonishing. No government since independence, had bothered to care for these women, until 2012. The Supreme Court of India, in response to a petition by an NGO, sought a report from the government on this matter. The Supreme Court also imposed a ₹1 lakh fine on the government for not coming up with a roadmap. The Ministry and the National Commission for Women have submitted a detailed Agreed Action Plan this year in the court.

Maneka Gandhi in 2016 laid foundation to India’s largest widow home in Vrindavan, to be built on over three-and-a-half acres of land and at a sum of ₹60 crores, aimed to house 1,000 beds.

 

The main question that should come to the mind here is why the governments of Bengal and Bihar have been incapable of halting this movement of people to UP? Are they incapable or are they unwilling?

Some private organisations like Maitri India and Sulabh have come forward and are helping these women to live a life of prestige. Many documentaries and presentations have been made on this subject by national as well as international filmmakers highlighting the plight of these women.

Narendra Modi has promised widows access to all the basic amenities needed for a comfortable life on the eve of Raksha Bandhan this year. Can the PM prevent his sisters from becoming a subject of documentaries?

Can he provide, ‘that widowed Indian woman’, a life full of dignity, to finally take a step ahead in realising his dream of a new and advanced India?

Let’s wait and watch!

 

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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