This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Devika Sharma. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

No Country For Widows

More from Devika Sharma

Lost in thought, Aarti Devi sits outside her tiny room and carefully cleans the dishes. “I was married when I was 11 to a man thrice my age. He died of alcoholism. I came here because my son abandoned me. Nobody looked after me, nobody loved me. I have survived on my own,” she says.

Aarti Devi, 78, has weathered the terrible traumas of life after the death of her husband. She has been living in Vrindavan for the last 40 years due to the dishonor, exploitation, and terror inflicted on her by her husband’s family. Even her own parents were unwilling to accept her back. Today, years later, she finds herself at ‘Aamar Bari’ with hundreds of women like her, who gingerly steer their difficult life alone.

Vrindavan, a beautiful and crammed temple city which epitomises people’s eternal devotion to Lord Krishna, has a murkier face to it. A number of bald-headed widows, mostly emaciated and dressed in white, can be seen begging outside the temples.

That is why Vrindavan is also called the ‘city of widows’. It houses thousands of exiled and condemned women who live in ashrams (monastery), temple spaces, open corridors, or are even homeless. These women are glorified as goddesses and worshipped in Hindu mythology and ‘family values’, and once loved as mothers, sisters, and daughters-in-law. They most likely meet their end in Vrindavan without ever meeting any loved one again. They are dumped and discarded for life, to die alone, left to their solitary, poverty-stricken, degraded fate, often combating hunger and multiple diseases. These women have a kaleidoscope of tragic stories about their past which depicts our society which is deep-rooted in patriarchy, marked by a certain brutal and ruthless ritualism towards women.

In as early as the second century BCE, the ‘Manusmriti’ (Laws of Manu), a significant Hindu text, has shaped a set of rigid gender rules, driven by the Brahminical code of conduct. The Manusmriti states that a widow must shed all ornaments, observe fasts, shave off her hair, pray to God to get rid of her ‘sins’ and also replace vermillion on her forehead with ash from her husband’s funeral pyre. In a code in which women are condemned to be brow-beaten in the male-dominated hierarchy, as a widow, she is certainly more inferior to a wife.

In a patriarchal society like India, widowhood is more than just losing a husband. It includes a gamut of social changes, from changing how a woman dresses, what she eats or desires to eat, the manner she conducts herself, to being pushed into daily humiliation and degradation by the family, particularly by her in-laws. The ordeal doesn’t stop there. Widows, often, even in today’s times, end up becoming a social recluse, stopped from partaking in community events, compelled to be exiled by the family, shut out from social life,  and mostly shorn of property rights. In some communities, widows, by tradition, were only allowed one meal a day and expected to relinquish all material desires.

Orthodox Hindus confirm to the mindless tradition that non-vegetarian food and even certain vegetables have components that “stir the blood and arouse sexual desires”. Some even believe that onion and garlic should be removed from their diets.

Orthodox and brutish male-dominated family systems, the tradition of patrilocal marriage and patriarchal inheritance have shored up the idea that women are mere ‘possessions’, or ‘reproductive machines’ who have no right over the husband’s property. Inheritance delegates to the males even in some matrilineal societies 

There are about 42.4 million widows in India, many of whom live in conditions of abject poverty. Their existence has often been labeled as virtually living the life of a modern-day sati. Some widows have been as young as 11-year-old and are required to spend the rest of their lives in seclusion.

An imperative cause of exploitation of widows is financial suffering. Mere 28 percent of Indian widows are entitled to pensions, and, of those, less than 11 percent receive their entitlement. If a woman is not financially strong, she becomes dependant on her in-laws and parents. Financial and social assistance is imperative for women whose husbands are dead and who are looking to lead an independent, productive and fulfilling life in a patriarchal society that reeks of orthodoxy, prejudice, gender injustice, and exploitation. Indeed, the Indian State and its governmental agencies promising ‘women and child welfare’, or, our social systems and community networks, even the voluntary sector, has effectively failed to work towards that.

Many of the widows in Vrindavan, mostly aging and physically helpless, have no choice but to beg for food and money to survive. Or, depending on charity.

According to research conducted by the National Commission for Women, 74 percent of poor widows live in West Bengal, 89 percent of the women in the study were illiterate, and 58 percent do not have ration cards. This is indicative of the fact that legislation has been unsuccessful in ushering in a positive change for widows. Widowhood is not considered an important issue that calls for action in India.

The International Widow’s Day was announced in 2005 with a vision to make the UN aware that a day to mark the occasion could possibly activate a restructuring of national laws to exterminate prejudices against widows. However, it has been unable to bring about a substantial transformation in India.

The stigmatising of widows transcends social status and permeates into middle-class and upper-middle-class families as well. Deepa Gupta (name changed), a resident of Kanpur, lost her husband to a heart attack and currently lives with her parents. An academic, Deepa bore the misgivings of widowhood but decided to fend off efforts by her conservative in-laws to tie her down within the chains of regressive mindsets. She left her in-laws in Rithala, Delhi, to go back to her home town.

My real problems began when my father-in-law started accusing me of being greedy. His daughters thought I was there for my husband’s property. Things went out of hand when he held my neck one day in front of my children. That’s when I decided to leave,” she said.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) requires international governments to enact gender equality regulations. Some governments have made an effort to help widows gain inheritance; however, little has changed in India. A host of cultural factors impedes any actual access to justice.

Many laws to protect women have been passed in India since independence. But the personal laws are what govern widowhood traditions. The archaic practice of Sati is well-known, but little do people know about the horrors of the daily suffering of widows, the way they are treated by the family/community, or the pain they survive in exile, solitary and homeless, by reciting bhajans and begging, as in Vrindavan.

There is an extreme lack of public concern and awareness for widows in civil society, as well as among NGOs and women’s organisations. Millions of women like Deepa and Aarti carry with them not only the pain of a life without love, they also face daily attacks on their self-dignity. Some have, by virtue of their education, sheer will, and determination, managed to come out of this rut, while many still struggle to survive. In ‘global India’ this ‘gender outcasting’ has become a veritable social curse, best witnessed in the Holy City of Vrindavan.

This article was first published here

Featured Image Credit: BBC
You must be to comment.

More from Devika Sharma

Similar Posts

By Debesh Banerjee

By Rupsa Nag

By Ungender Legal Advisory

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

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.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below