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."

Ritual Humiliation

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.

Alternative Housing

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.

For more information:

"Status of Widows of Vrindavan and Varanasi: A Comparative Study":