The World

India's Outcast Widows Have New Havens

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Widows in India still undergo ritual humiliations and extreme ostracism; conditions that several new programs are seeking to redress.

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A widow in Vrindavan

CHENNAI, India (WOMENSENEWS)--When Mohini Giri wants to describe the hardships of widows living along the banks of the Ganges, she tells the story of Shanta Bai.

When Bai was 5 years old her shoulders drooped under the weight of her bridal garland. But according to Giri, a widows' advocate, the little girl could hardly have imagined what burdens lay ahead. Her uncle had pocketed Rs.300($6.55) by marrying her off to a 36 year old.The husband died four years later, leaving Bai a9-year-old widow.

Now 85, says Giri, Bai hobbles down the streets of Vrindavan, a city in the north of India, her gnarled fingers cupping a broken bowl, begging for her living while she waits for death to claim her.

Bai is one the estimated 33 million widows in India, the country with the largest widow population in the world. Among them, at least 20,000, like Bai, sit on the banks of the river Ganges and beg for alms. Vrindavan and Varanasi, holy cities in the north of India and two of the country's most sought-after pilgrim centers, have become home to the husbandless.

Conference Drew Attention

Giri is chair of the New Delhi-based Guild of Service, which aids women and children. Two years ago, the national volunteer group focused international attention on the plight of women such as Bai with a conference about the situation of India's widows.

Attendees produced a series of demands, including reforms to legal inheritance rights, a plan for economic empowerment and laws to mitigate their physical and social abuse.

Delegates at the conference also formed the New Delhi-based South Asian Alliance for Widows to lobby local governments to provide support and plans to assist widows in gaining more power throughout India. Spurred by these gatherings and initiatives, the central government formed a committee to address the needs of the widows of Vrindavan.

In the short term, the committee aims to provide widows along the Ganges with shelter, medical care and education. In longer and broader terms, it aims to bring such widows in from the outskirts of society.

A look at the cultural forces that have made the northern holy cities of Vrindavan and Varanasi a home to the husbandless show what such efforts are up against.

The preponderance of widows in the two holy cities can often be couched in the euphemistic terms of religious reverence. According to traditional Hindu belief, those who die in a pilgrim center are freed from the eternal cycle of life and death and even attain moksha, or emancipation.

But, Giri says, few widows choose to spend or end their lives as beggars. Many are thrown out of family homes by their children or abandoned by their in-laws as evil women who caused the death of their husbands.

"This is the plight of most of the widows who arrive in Vrindavan," she says. "Without a man by her side a woman has no respect in Indian society. It is part of a patriarchal culture."

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