Vrindavan is known as Lord Krishna’s birthplace. People come here to worship him and others in search of moksha for the rest of their life. Vrindavan has many stories to tell – stories of separation, stories of fractured emotions and the most repressive kind of renunciation. The obligatory actors in these stories are widows.
As per the latest census reports, the number of widows is increasing in India. There are more than 6000 widows in Vrindavan itself. The conditions of these women are very pathetic there. The most shocking fact has come to light in a survey by the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA) titled Plight of Forsaken/Forlorn Women — Old and Widows Living in Vrindavan and Radius.
It says that the bodies of dead widows in government-run shelter homes are taken away by the sweepers at night, cut into pieces and disposed of in jute bags. This will happen only if the inmates give money to the sweeper.
After seeing their condition, the honourable Supreme Court suggested Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, Founder of Sulabh Movement to do something for their welfare. Sulabh has started various welfare activities for them. The first initiative was providing monetary support for meeting their basic needs. Because they are living in absolute poverty where they would only earn 8 rupees per month by singing bhajans in the temples for 4 hours in a day, they used to beg on the streets of Vrindavan for their daily food. Now Sulabh is providing Rs. 2000 per month to fulfil their needs and occasionally dresses too. Sulabh is also providing educational and vocational training classes to the widows, along with televisions and ambulance services for emergency cases.
When I went to Mahila Asray Sadan, I saw many old ladies on the road leading to it. Wearing an old white saree, holding a tokri for the prasad and a tilak in their forehead makes them identifiable in the crowd. Yes! The symbol of widowhood. The symbol of loneliness. Widowhood is a common phenomenon because death is certain to all. But still, widows are separated from their families in the name of superstitious beliefs. Many of their family members, even their children do not want them in their life. They consider them as an affliction since they don’t want to spend money on a non-earning member.
But in case of a man whose wife has died, their condition will be different. The socio-cultural codes will change for them. If they wish they can remarry another girl also and make the life happier. The conditions are similar but the after effects are contradictory for men and women. This is a state of affairs where we can easily spot the gender disparities in a patriarchal society.
While the Sati system was ended in 1829, widowhood is still being used to oppress women. In the name of superstitious beliefs, a woman is forced to suffer continuous humiliation and blatant exploitation. Even if our Constitution provides for gender equality, a large part of the country’s population is still suffering from social power structures which put them into the depths of socio-economic inequalities.
When I entered Radha Tila Mahila Ashram, I found a silence which was abruptly broken by four women who came out to greet me with “Radhe Radhe”. They asked, “What do you want to know from me?”
“Nothing mataji, I just came here to meet you all,” I answered. She smiled. Maybe they are used to these interviews. But I didn’t want them to go through those days again which they are not interested to remember. Hence, I just informally started to talk to them. In our conversation, they did share their story. One of them was from Nepal. Her mother was a widow and she is 100 years old now and has been living in Vrindavan for years now. The woman used to visit her mother often. After her husband’s death, she was also forced to come and live here. Her son rarely visits. She also doesn’t want to go back home. She wishes to spend the rest of her life in this holy land.
I took a walk through their houses. The buildings are very old and poorly maintained. Some of the rooms are very small and congested. Only some of them have a kitchen facility and attached toilets. It causes difficulties for the older women, especially at night. They have only one caretaker (male) in the ashram, most widows live by helping each other in time of need. Even in the plight of deprivation, they told me, “We are satisfied with whatever things we have. All are the mercy of our Lord.”
My next visit was to the All India Women’s Conference Old Age Home. When I crossed the main door I felt a different world inside. The ways are dark and silent. The building was very old. When I entered the hall they look at me strangely. Here, the widows are all from Bengal and divided based on their age. I entered the room of one of the older women. The room that accommodated six women, was very small only one person could walk between the beds at a time. The room was very congested with all their belongings. The Home has three staff members (female) to take care of widows.
After that, I went to Ma Sarada Mahila Ashram. The rooms and buildings are much better than the ones I had visited previously. They have enough bathroom facilities also. The widows in this home are also from Bengal. I found them to be very active without having too many difficulties of old age.
One of the staff members said that everyone has a different story to tell. Some chose this place while some others accidentally came here. But now, everyone has only one dream; to gain moksha after their death. Is it right? Don’t they have any other dream other than this rather than waiting for death? I am sure that they also need happiness in their life.
Empowering them mentally is as important as their physical health. But how many are really concerned about this issue? From the birth itself, every girl was brought up in a world of restrictions and inequalities. She is not supposed to study too much. The society thinks that girls are born only to give birth to children, because of which many of them are married off at a very young age. In case of the Hindu patriarchal society, their subordination has been legitimized by religious scriptures also. Even in higher castes, they are forced to perform specific rituals, norms and duties. Here caste-class doesn’t make much difference.
Gender equality should be assured at birth itself. Girls are not a burden. Education is the best tool for social change. Discrimination and disparity should be removed from our homes otherwise these practices will continue to happen in our society. The cruelty that these women have faced because of widowhood should not continue.