One in three

In Vrindavan, a city in north­ern In­dia, ev­ery third per­son is a widow. wid oth­ers are dumped there by their fam­i­lies. Nil­ima Pathak and While some travel from across the coun­try to spend their lives there, Anand Raj OK re­port

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peo­ple in Vrindavan is a widow and many of th­ese women have been ban­ished to the city be­cause of so­cial prej­u­dice

Amita* can barely walk. It’s past 6pm and with her dirty, crum­pled white sari flut­ter­ing around her, the 70-year-old leans heav­ily on her walk­ing stick, try­ing to hob­ble faster down the dusty lane to­wards home. She has been to visit a neigh­bour­ing shrine to par­tic­i­pate in the evening prayer, but she can’t be late be­cause that would mean miss­ing her evening meal – one of two she gets a day.

Amita, a widow, lives in a shel­ter that is run by a char­ity along with around 100 other wi­d­ows. Ill treated and aban­doned by her fam­ily who blamed the death of her hus­band on her ‘bad luck’, she fled her vil­lage more than 50 years ago. Un­able to bear the taunts and hu­mil­i­a­tions, she came to Vrindavan – also known as the City of Wi­d­ows – in Mathura, in the north In­dian state of Ut­tar Pradesh.

Ar­riv­ing just in time for din­ner – a cup of rice, a cou­ple of chap­patis and a veg­etable curry – Amita limps to the din­ing area where she sits with a few other wi­d­ows, eat­ing in si­lence be­fore go­ing to the dor­mi­tory she shares with around 30 other women like her.

Cast out with no place to go

“I’ve been here for, I don’t know, more than 50 years. I used to live and beg on the streets. But some years ago, this char­ity took me into this house,’’ she says, look­ing out the win­dow of the dor­mi­tory wist­fully.

In su­per­sti­tious fam­i­lies in In­dia, the widow is of­ten blamed for the death of her hus­band. Con­sid­ered a bad omen, they are of­ten aban­doned by their fam­i­lies and os­tracised by so­ci­ety. They end up des­ti­tute and quite lit­er­ally on the street.

In­dia has an es­ti­mated 40 mil­lion wi­d­ows – around 10 per cent of In­dia’s fe­male pop­u­la­tion. But in Vrindavan, a small town that boasts a pop­u­la­tion of around 60,000, an es­ti­mated 20,000 are wi­d­ows.

This city in In­dia acts as a mag­net for Hindu wi­d­ows be­cause of the large num­ber of shrines – around 5,000. Tra­di­tion­ally, in ru­ral ar­eas of In­dia, once a woman be­comes a widow, she is

From newly-weds to mid­dleaged mothers to el­derly women who can barely walk, al­most all are dressed in white

ex­pected to give up all plea­sures in life and turn to a life of piety, so they are drawn to shrines. With few places to turn to, wi­d­ows, who are of­ten not well ed­u­cated and lack skills that could help them earn a liv­ing, of­ten travel to this tem­ple town to spend the rest of their lives here or are dumped by their fam­ily who are un­will­ing to look af­ter them. Many are forced to turn to beg­ging to sur­vive.

There are sev­eral char­i­ties op­er­at­ing in the city and a large num­ber of wi­d­ows are taken into their care where they spend their time singing de­vo­tional songs or do­ing small jobs like thread­ing flow­ers to make gar­lands or mak­ing in­cense sticks, which are sold to pil­grims vis­it­ing the shrines.

Amita’s story is a sad ex­am­ple of how a widow ends up here. She was barely 12 when her mar­riage was ar­ranged with Bab­u­lal*. Dressed in bri­dal fin­ery, she was too young to re­alise the im­por­tance of the event and blithely en­joyed the at­ten­tion show­ered on her by fam­ily, friends and rel­a­tives on her wed­ding day. More than any­thing else, she was happy be­cause mar­riage meant not go­ing to school – a place she de­tested as she hated study­ing.

Liv­ing in San­thal vil­lage in­West Ben­gal, the young girl had lost her mother early in life and af­ter her two el­der sis­ters mar­ried and moved out of the fam­ily home, she was re­spon­si­ble for look­ing af­ter the house and her fa­ther.

Through mar­riage she gained a car­ing hus­band and loving in-laws who of­ten told her she should look up to them as her own par­ents and they cared for her and loved her like their own daugh­ter. She be­came even closer to them when her fa­ther died from a heart at­tack soon af­ter she was mar­ried.

One morn­ing two years into her mar­riage, Amita’s 18-year-old hus­band died in road ac­ci­dent leav­ing the teenage girl a widow. The then 14-year-old was even more shocked and

dev­as­tated when her in-laws sud­denly turned against her and be­gan curs­ing her for bring­ing bad luck into their home.

“You are the rea­son we lost our son so early in life,’’ they shouted.

An or­phan as well as a widow, Amita was dis­owned by her two sis­ters who did not want to shoul­der the bur­den of look­ing af­ter her. With nowhere else to go she lived with her in-laws for an­other year. “Dur­ing that time I was sub­jected to much hu­mil­i­a­tion and men­tal and phys­i­cal ha­rass­ment,’’ she says.

They forced her to shave her head and she was only al­lowed to wear a white sari – the colour of mourn­ing in some com­mu­ni­ties in In­dia. Her jewellery was taken away from her and she was banned from wear­ing any kind of or­na­ments. Food was re­duced to two sim­ple veg­e­tar­ian meals a day.

See­ing Amita’s plight, a dis­tant rel­a­tive sug­gested she go to Vrindavan. “There are a lot of peo­ple like you there,’’ she told Amita. So she left for the tem­ple town by train. That was in 1958 and since then, Amita has made the city her home. She has never re­mar­ried or had chil­dren. In­stead she has grown old in the City of Wi­d­ows.

So­cial stigma

Sadly Amita is not alone. Liv­ing in lit­tle shacks by the sides of the roads or in char­ity homes that pock­mark the busy city, thou­sands of women tell sim­i­lar sto­ries of hav­ing to flee the ap­palling so­cial stigma they’ve had to en­dure fol­low­ing the death of their hus­band. From newly-weds to mid­dle-aged mothers to el­derly women who can barely walk, al­most all are dressed in white.

Jostling for space and mak­ing their way through the dusty roads filled with cars, ox-drawn carts, cy­cle rick­shaws, cows and crowds, wi­d­ows can be seen on ev­ery street cor­ner. They spend their time in prayer while some of them beg for food or money to sur­vive.

“Many wi­d­ows don’t have a lot of so­cial rights within the fam­ily,” Ran­jana Ku­mari, di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for So­cial Re­search, a group that works to em­power women, says.

The sit­u­a­tion is much more ex­treme in some of In­dia’s ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties. “There, it is much more tra­di­tion-bound. In ur­ban ar­eas there are more chances and pos­si­bil­i­ties to live a nor­mal life,” she says. This is some­thing that Dr Mohini Giri, who is the daugh­ter-in-law of the for­mer Pres­i­dent of In­dia, VV Giri and the for­mer chair­per­son of the National Com­mis­sion forWomen, knows about.

She lost her hus­band when she was 50 and had to en­dure so­cial hu­mil­i­a­tion on many oc­ca­sions. There were times when she was asked not to at­tend wed­dings be­cause her pres­ence was con­sid­ered bad luck.

“Gen­er­ally all wi­d­ows are os­tracised,” she says. “An ed­u­cated woman may have money and in­de­pen­dence, but even that is of­ten snatched away when she be­comes a widow.’’

Recog­nis­ing the need to lend a help­ing hand to such women, she set up an or­gan­i­sa­tion called Guild for Ser­vice in 2000. To­day it op­er­ates sev­eral ini­tia­tives in­clud­ing run­ning homes for wi­d­ows in Vrindavan. “Mine is but a drop in the bucket,” she says of the as­sis­tance her or­gan­i­sa­tion pro­vides.

‘A shift in con­scious­ness’

The plight and treat­ment of wi­d­ows has raised eye­brows in­ter­na­tion­ally. TV per­son­al­ity Oprah Win­frey, who vis­ited In­dia last year in con­nec­tion with the Jaipur Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val, says, “When I met the wi­d­ows in In­dia, it caused a shift in my con­scious­ness.

“I couldn’t be­lieve that in a coun­try that loves its fam­ily and tra­di­tion, you get cast aside for some­thing you have no con­trol over, just be­cause your hus­band died!’’

Dr Mohini says, “Oprah, as part of her trav­els through In­dia, vis­ited the Guild for Ser­vice and in­ter­acted with all the wi­d­ows. She also ex­pressed her de­sire to work with me to em­power the women.’’

In 2005, the UN-ac­cred­ited The Loomba Foun­da­tion, a UK-based non-profit that helps wi­d­ows and their chil­dren, named June 23 as In­ter­na­tional Wi­d­ows Day. The or­gan­i­sa­tion hoped that an an­niver­sary to mark the oc­ca­sion could trig­ger laws to pro­tect wi­d­ows and end prej­u­dice against them. Over the years, The Loomba Foun­da­tion has ed­u­cated 8,500 wi­d­ows’ chil­dren in In­dia through its Ed­u­cate a Widow’s Child in In­dia pro­ject.

Ac­cord­ing to a char­ity worker, the wi­d­ows, known as matas (mothers) in Vrindavan, have been pour­ing into the city for the past 300 years. While some, like Amita, ar­rived vol­un­tar­ily, there are thou­sands of women who have been un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously dumped there by their own chil­dren who con­sider it a bur­den to look af­ter them in their old age.

Kusum, 65, a res­i­dent of Ko­ra­put dis­trict in Orissa, first vis­ited Vrindavan with her hus­band 40 years ago. Af­ter his death 16 years ago, their only son be­gan ne­glect­ing her and on the pre­text of tak­ing her on a pil­grim­age, he brought her to Vrindavan and aban­doned her.

The agony of be­ing dis­re­garded and the pain she went through fol­low­ing her hus­band’s death is still vis­i­ble in her eyes, but she doesn’t cry any more.

“If I wanted, I could have re­turned to my vil­lage and thrown my son and daugh­ter-in-law out of the house be­cause it be­longed to me,’’ she says. “But I knew that wouldn’t be easy. The vil­lagers may not have sup­ported me be­cause I am a widow. So on lis­ten­ing to the tales of wi­d­ows here – some of whom had worse tales to tell than mine – I de­cided to spend the rest

of my life in and around the tem­ples.” El­derly wi­d­ows aren’t the only ones who suf­fer. Sushila, 40, has been liv­ing in Vrindavan for the past six months. Not want­ing to dis­close where she comes from, she says, “I lost my hus­band to tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. The fam­ily then tried to force me to marry his el­der brother, but when I re­fused they threw me out of the house. Pen­ni­less, I was with­out any shel­ter.”

Ini­tially Sushila worked as a maid in peo­ple’s homes, but she left af­ter some bad ex­pe­ri­ences. “I was abused by peo­ple where I worked and one day six years ago when I couldn’t take it any longer, I boarded a train and came to Vrindavan. I’ve been here ever since.”

Even though the Hindu Wi­d­ows’ Re­mar­riage Act, which came into ef­fect more than 150 years ago, gives women the right to re­marry and the Hindu Suc­ces­sion Act gives them the same in­her­i­tance rights as men, not much has changed for women in the lower strata of so­ci­ety, say rights ac­tivists.

Many of the wi­d­ows in Vrindavan are re­luc­tant to re­turn to their homes, even if they are given the chance. “I’ve suf­fered hu­mil­i­a­tion and star­va­tion at my in-laws’ house and I would not go back there on any count,’’ says an­other widow Manu Ghosh*.

Wid­owed 40 years ago, Manu is now 92. She has spent her life singing hymns in shrines and de­pend­ing on the char­ity of strangers. There are a few govern­ment-run char­i­ties that of­fer a home to th­ese women, but there are not enough to shel­ter the thou­sands who need it.

Break­ing the shack­les

Usu­ally wi­d­ows are not al­lowed to bathe in the river along­side pil­grims and are banned from par­tic­i­pat­ing in cel­e­bra­tions such as Holi, the fes­ti­val of colour. But Vrindavan saw a rev­o­lu­tion of sorts re­cently. Dr Bin­desh­war Pathak, chair­man of Su­labh In­ter­na­tional So­cial Ser­vices Or­gan­i­sa­tion, a char­ity that is do­ing a lot for the cause of wi­d­ows, re­cently en­cour­aged the women to break the shack­les of tra­di­tion and or­gan­ised a ma­jor event to cel­e­brate the fes­ti­val of Holi.

“As wi­d­ows do not tra­di­tion­ally par­tic­i­pate in Holi in Vrindavan, the event was marked to bring about a change in the mind­set of so­ci­ety. It was an ef­fort to bring the wi­d­ows to the main­stream and help their so­cial as­sim­i­la­tion,” Dr Bin­desh­war says.

“Un­like in an­cient times where sati was per­formed, wi­d­ows no longer throw them­selves on the fu­neral pyres of their hus­bands. Over the years, some changes have come about, but life still re­mains hard. We need to work to­wards end­ing so­cial prej­u­dices against wi­d­ows.”

Su­labh pro­vides fa­cil­i­ties for the wi­d­ows and is spear­head­ing schemes to raise their sta­tus and end the stigma against them.

Ra­jveer Singh, a so­cial ac­tivist, who has been look­ing af­ter the wel­fare ac­tiv­i­ties of the wi­d­ows for the past 15 years, says, “Un­til re­cently, wi­d­ows sur­vived on a measly monthly pen­sion of Rs300 (Dh18) given to them by the govern­ment. Some earned a lit­tle more by singing hymns by the road­side or in shrines.’’

But life is be­gin­ning to change. A pub­licin­ter­est lit­i­ga­tion filed by the National Le­gal Ser­vices Au­thor­ity (Nalsa), has given rise to hopes of a bet­ter life for the women in white. Con­sti­tuted un­der the Le­gal Ser­vices Au­thor­i­ties Act, 1987, to pro­vide free le­gal aid to weaker seg­ments of so­ci­ety, Nalsa was moved by the con­di­tion of the wi­d­ows and sought help from the courts in help­ing them achieve pro­tec­tion. In re­sponse, the Supreme Court re­quested that char­i­ties, in­clud­ing Su­labh, work to im­prove their sit­u­a­tion.

Dr Bin­desh­war im­me­di­ately opened an of­fice in Vrindavan and has been tak­ing care of the ba­sic needs of a large num­ber of wi­d­ows, pro­vid­ing them with things like food and health­care. He has also en­sured that five fully equipped am­bu­lances are sta­tioned in char­ity homes. Dr Bin­desh­war pro­vides Rs2,000 each to around 4,000 wi­d­ows ev­ery month for their

‘Over the years, some changes have come about, but life still re­mains hard for wi­d­ows. We need to work to­wards end­ing so­cial prej­u­dices’

daily needs based on their health con­di­tions. The money is raised through do­na­tions and fund-rais­ers. Dr Bin­desh­war says, “The idea was to en­sure a life of dig­nity for them. Now they are not forced to beg or go to bed hun­gry.”

Thanks to the work of var­i­ous char­i­ties, wi­d­ows are re­gain­ing con­fi­dence by learn­ing vo­ca­tional skills. So­cial ac­tivist Ra­jveer says, “Hun­dreds of wi­d­ows have lived a life of penury, beg­ging to sus­tain them­selves. But not any­more. In­stead, they are learn­ing to read and write Hindi, English and Ben­gali. And a lot of them are en­thu­si­as­ti­cally learn­ing other skills, in­clud­ing stitch­ing gar­ments and mak­ing gar­lands and in­cense sticks.” They now have the de­sire to live.

Women in white can be seen all over Vrindavan. The lucky

ones are taught vo­ca­tional skills like mak­ing in­cense sticks

Em­pow­ered by ed­u­ca­tion: Char­i­ties in Vrindavan teach wi­d­ows English, Hindi and Ben­gali

Life is hard for wi­d­ows in many parts of In­dia; a life of so­cial stigma and poverty of­ten fol­lows the death of a spouse

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