By Uma Girish
Sunday, April 18, 2004
Widows in India still undergo ritual humiliations and extreme ostracism; conditions that several new programs are seeking to redress.
Although the horrific practice of sati--requiring widows to throw themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres--was abolished in 1829, widows still undergo ritual humiliations. After the death of a husband, a woman is shorn of her bridal ornamentation; her head is shaved by the local barber and her body is wrapped in a stark white sari so she may not arouse carnal pleasures in other men.
The bright red sindoor, the red smear that a married woman wears in the parting of her hairline, is substituted by a vertical ash smear from the top of her forehead to the top of her nose. Her very presence is considered so inauspicious that even her shadow may not fall on a married woman lest her terrible fate befall the other woman.
"In India a woman is respected only if she is a mother, daughter and wife," says Giri. "While we have come to accept death we have unfortunately not learned to accept widows."
The 1856 Hindu Widows' Remarriage Act gave women the legal right to remarry and the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 gave women the same inheritance rights as men. Those rights, however, are rarely put into practice.
Since women in India are often married off at a young age instead of being educated, they usually lack the skills and knowledge to fend for themselves economically and fight for their basic rights.
When they arrive at Vrindavan and Varanasi, the widows find shelters that were built almost a century ago for local ashrams or religious institutions. Today, the cramped, leaky spaces--administered by local government officials--accommodate about three women each, who sleep on torn sacks.
They receive meager rations of rice and lentils only if they spend six hours singing devotional songs at the ashram. Young widows are often lured into sex in exchange for more food or money.
For some widows, however, there is an alternative.
In 1998, Giri marshaled her contacts and developed Aamar Bari, or My Home, a large housing complex in Vrindavan that shelters over 100 widows, between the ages of 40 and 105. The women here learn skills such as weaving, embroidery, beadwork, nursing and spinning, which Giri hopes will one day translate into economic independence. The women worship together, receive medical help at a small clinic and eat regular meals.
The government is also beginning to try to help widows who are cast out by their families. One of the plans is Swadhar, an $11 million network of shelters, which will provide food, medical care, education, counseling and training.
Giri says education is one of the most important components of the new initiatives. With education, she says, comes an empowerment that can help widows build a new identity for themselves. Otherwise, she says, "their voices will be stifled from the cradle to the grave."
Uma Girish is a freelance writer in Chennai, India.
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