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You are here: Home | Women | Features | Women in white: India's widows

Women in white: India's widows

Following the recent announcement that the National Human Rights Commission will now coordinate governmental and non-governmental measures to help the widows of Vrindavan and the rest of the country, this article discusses the situation and problems of widows in India, past and present

Read the following three paragraphs carefully. Then answer the questions that follow:

Janaki was a young inmate of a widows' home in Benaras. The home was run by a widow who supplied the younger inmates to zamindars and seths. Janaki was one of the widows forced into prostitution. Chuhiya was the youngest widow at the ashram. All of eight. The madam offered Chuhiya for gangrape. Chuhiya survived the rape, but only just. Janaki managed to make her way out of the ashram. But even outside it, she came to grief. She killed herself.

Bina was six when she was married off to a man who was 32. Her brother sold her to the bridegroom for Rs 300. For three years her husband beat her, locking her out of the house for days at a stretch. Then one day he died. At nine, Bina was a widow. Her brother-in-law and sister-in-law then began abusing her, beating her. They wanted to drive her out of the house: she was unlucky, they said. When she grew up, she would demand her share of the property. Finally, when she was in her late teens, her sister rescued her and took her to an ashram in a nearby town.

A funeral procession was about to leave for the cremation grounds. The widow sat cringing in a corner. No one would touch her. Three women from the barber caste were summoned. They pounced on her and tore her ornaments off. In the procession, she had to follow 200 feet behind the rest, lest her shadow fall on a married woman and she be widowed too. No one approached her all day -- even to give her water. For 13 days after the cremation she was made to sit on the ground in the same clothes. On the 13th day she was allowed to bathe and change. The barber women came and shaved her hair off. The brahmin came to collect his dues. Then she was sent off to the Ganga on pilgrimage. Who knows if she ever came back……….

Which of these stories is fact, and which fiction?
Which of these stories is set in the 19th century, which in pre-independence India, and which in contemporary India?

Give yourself 10 points for each correct answer: The first is the bare bones of the plot of Water, Deepa Mehta's controversial film set in 1930s Benaras, now abandoned, following a storm of protest last year.

The second is the real-life story of a girl who lived in a village 22 kms from the town of Madhubani in Bihar. Bina is now around 30. She lives in the Abhay Ashram in Madhubani, is literate, and manages a handicrafts emporium in the town. She earns Rs 550. "My life was played with as though it were a doll's," she said recently. "But we will make progress. We will show the kind of revolution that widows are capable of if harassed."

The third is as real as it can get too. It is based on an article by an anonymous writer titled `The Plight of Hindu Widows as Described by a Widow Herself' published in April 1889.

Only the first story, therefore, is fiction. But even that, a West Bengal government-sponsored study released recently reveals, reflects the facts. Widows from West Bengal, the northeastern states and Bangladesh still make their way to the ashrams of Vrindavan, Mathura and Varanasi, in the hope that in the holy cities, god will not allow anyone to starve. Young widows are still being brought in by sex traffickers and sold into prostitution. The 'sevadasi' system, in which the 'service' done to rich and powerful pilgrims is seen as an act of piety, is still prevalent. Sexual exploitation still exists at the bhajanashrams.

In September 2001, a high-level meeting of the National Human Rights Commission, representatives of the Department of Women and Child Development, Human Resource Development Ministry, and Governments of Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal was held. At this meeting, Justice JS Verma said: "It is unfortunate that nothing substantial seems to have happened to elevate the status of women who hence come to Vrindavan despite the philanthropic attitude of the people in the country to help others. The need of the hour is to take concrete steps to stop the flow of women to Vrindavan and simultaneously carry out rehabilitation programmes whereby the overall plight of these women can be improved."

The NHRC, it was decided, would be the facilitating agency that would take these concrete steps, coordinating efforts of the government and NGOs. Justice Sujata V Manohar, NHRC member who visited Vrindavan to study the plight of widows, stated that facilities such as free and clean accommodation, financial assistance and proper healthcare should be provided to these destitute women. She suggested that a fund be set up for their dignified cremation, distribution of pension, establishment of self-help groups for income-generation, provision of LPG connections for group cooking, ration cards, group housing scheme and suitable security measures.

Whether these "concrete steps" will make any difference at all to the widows of Vrindavan remains to be seen.

An earlier study, commissioned in 1992 by the National Commission for Women and conducted by Deepali Bhanot, corroborates that "the flesh trade flourishes in Vrindavan and Mathura in the full knowledge of the police, administration, holy men and politicians." Amongst the several widows interviewed, Chapla Desi, 27, is quoted as saying, "All men lust after our bodies." Baldly stated, but essentially what the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata recorded centuries ago: "Just as birds flock to a piece of flesh left on the ground, so all men try to seduce a woman whose husband is dead."

Of the 2,910 women surveyed in the West Bengal study, 2,113 were from West Bengal, 297 from Bangladesh. Over 500 were below 30. Fifty per cent of them depend on the doles at the bhajanashrams and on begging. There is no other way to make a living. No wonder they turn to prostitution. The NCW study stated that women are paid Rs 2 plus 250 grams of rice and 50 grams of dal for singing bhajans eight hours a day. Scams in various institutions ensure that sometimes they don't get even that. With rents skyrocketing from Rs 3 to Rs 350 per month, most widows outside the ashrams now live 30-40 to one squalid tenement. A few jute sacks constitute their bedding. Diseases such as tuberculosis, dysentery and STDs are common, but medical help is virtually non-existent. From their meagre earnings the widows must save to take care of their own last rites.

In spite of this miserable existence, only 436 widows of the 2,910 would go home given the chance. This is perhaps the saddest part of their story. For in these temple towns at least the widow is free to live her own life with others like herself. Back home it is her own family that does her out of her property, obliterates her identity and ordains for her a kind of social death.

The problems of the destitutes in temple towns is only one visible end of the white sari. According to the 1991 Census there are 33 million widows all over India -- 8 per cent of the total female population and 50 per cent of the female population over the age of 50. In terms of prevalence of widowhood, India ranks among the highest in the world. The incidence of widowhood rises sharply with age: 64 per cent among women aged 60 and above, and 80 per cent among women aged 70. An Indian woman who survives to old age is therefore almost certain to become a widow. In contrast, only 2.5 per cent of Indian men are widowers, and even in the older age groups only a small minority of men are widowed. The main reasons for this are the much higher rate of remarriage for widowers, and the fact that male mortality rates are higher than female.

The story of the daily deprivations of these 33 million widows is never told. Deprivations that cause mortality rates for widows to be a shocking 85 per cent higher amongst widows than among married women.

Most Indian states do have pension schemes for widows above a certain age. While the pension is less than Rs 150, the bureaucratic requirements are bountiful: the applicant must have no children capable of supporting her, she must earn less than Rs 100, she must be physically unfit to work, she must not beg, she must not own a house….But she must have the ability to apply for a pension, make several trips to the taluka office etc! No wonder less than 10 per cent of all widows actually receive the State's largesse.

Apart from the economic problems, widows even in educated, middle class families continue to be placed under immense psychological and social pressures. Martha Alter Chen's extensive survey of widows across seven states reveals that even today widows are accused of being 'responsible' for their husband's death. They are pressurised to observe restrictive codes of dress and behaviour. They are excluded from religious and social life. They are physically and sexually abused. And they are done out of their property. In theory, 51 per cent of widows have rights to a share in their husband's land. But these rights are often violated in practice by brothers-in-law. It is ominous that in the Jharkhand region of Bihar, of the 46 Santhal women persecuted and killed as `witches' in recent years, 42 were widows with land rights.

What isn't entirely accurate is the popular conception that widow remarriage is prohibited in Hindu society. Only the upper castes prohibit the practice. In most other cases, widows are allowed to remarry -- including levirate marriages to their brothers-in-law -- but often don't choose to, either because of their children, or because a man agreeing to marry a widow is generally impoverished, looking for a second wife, or old.

Also, most widows today are not forced to undergo the rituals that marked the renunciation of a woman's sexuality amongst the Brahmanical upper castes. The Brahmanical tradition especially after 700 AD saw women as "sites of conflict between a demoniac stri-svabhava -- their innate nature, which is lustful -- and their stridharma, a woman's duty. There (was considered) no greater delight and no more destructive urge for women than sex," writes Uma Chakravarti in Widows in India: Social Neglect and Public Action (Sage, 1999), edited by Martha Alter Chen. Early marriage was the only way to channelise her lustful sexual energies. "Through marriage and wifely devotion, the biological woman - a wild, untamed and disorderly entity -- can be converted into a 'cultured' woman, a social entity who has vanquished all the demoniac force within her."

With her husband dead, a widow's riotous passion is the cause of moral panic. She must therefore be completely neutered, desexed. The Laws of Manu laid down that she must give up ornamentation, observe fasts, emaciate the body, eat only one meal a day, and sleep on the floor. She must not eat 'hot' foods or betelnut which heats up the body. The orange haldi applied on her before marriage to heat it up for intercourse and the bloodred kumkum and sindoor that marked her out as a sexually potent female were to be substituted by the ash of the funeral pyre. And after the 14th century, her hair -- the site of all sin and pollution -- was to be shaved off. If a widow did not shave her head, it was believed, every drop of water which fell upon her hair would pollute her husband's soul as many times as the number of hairs upon her head.

Widows in India may no longer be required to shave their hair off. But the mindset that sees a woman's identity only vis-à-vis the males around her has not really changed. As Meera Kumar, a women's activist who has written extensively on the subject of widowhood says, "The traditional Hindu blessing for a married woman is 'Sadaa Sowbhagyawati Bhavaa,' thereby implying that marriage is the only desirable state for a woman." No wonder the widow is marginalised and reduced to a social non-entity. "On the one hand society reveres the mother as a demi-goddess. But she cannot be a goddess unless she sports sindoor and bangles. There is an absolute dichotomy in the attitudes to the woman as pativrata and as widow."

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