There are more than 40 million widows in India and many, including girls as young as 4 years old, have been ostracised from society, forced to beg or prostitute as a means of survival.
“In traditional Hindu custom, when a woman’s husband dies, she becomes a zero and all her powers are lost,” says Mohini Giri, the former chair for the commission of women in India and a widow herself. She explains that many conservative Indian families see widows as a liability.
Widows are shunned from society, not for religious reasons, but because of tradition and because they’re seen as a financial drain on their families. Cast out of the family home, they live the rest of their lives in poverty and isolation.
Generally, for Hindu widows, the higher their caste, the more restrictions they face.
When a man dies, his widow is expected to renounce all earthly pleasures. Many widows in India have been driven out from their homes and have no place else to go. They cannot remarry. They must not wear jewelry. They are forced to shave their heads and typically wear white. Even their shadows are considered bad luck.They live in terrible poverty, often begging or singing at temples for a measly meal. Many of the younger widows are forced into prostitution.
Only 28 percent of the widows in India are eligible for pensions, but less than 11 percent actually receive the payments to which they’re entitled – meaning widows are at the mercy of their families.
“An educated woman may have money and independence, but even that is snatched away when she becomes a widow. We live in a patriarchal society. Men say that culturally as a widow you cannot do anything: You cannot grow your hair, you should not look beautiful,” Giri says.
Now bent over from osteoporosis, 85-year-old Promita Das was married at 12 and widowed at 15. She now lives in Vrindavan, a city in northern India, where about 15,000 widows live on the streets.
“I came here when I couldn’t work anymore. I used to clean houses,” she says. “Nobody looked after me, nobody loved me. I survived on my own.”
Although illegal in India, child marriages still occur, especially in Rajasthan, Northern India. Shanti Khati is 10 years old, and has been a widow for the last three years after her husband drowned. Shanti does not go to school; she’s busy working in the fields or doing household chores. She is no longer allowed to attend social functions, or even play with other children. Life is often even worse for these girls once they are older, when they are sometimes remarried.
This custom, known as ‘nata’ among the low-caste communities that practice it, gives these girls a colourless wedding and a live-in relationship; a legal marriage but social apartheid. A child widow rarely gets any share in her first husband’s property, and for the parents, it’s an additional burden to marry her off again. A widow gets only minimal bride price, and often none. At times, what she gets from the second husband is passed on to the family of her late husband.
Across India, statistics suggest that there are around 107,993 widows in the 10-14 age group, and 127,003 for the 15-19 group. What’s missing in the census report is a mention of widows less than nine years of age.
NGOs and community projects, particularly in Vrindavan, have been set up in an attempt to help these women, but the issue is widely overlooked. For girls who are married at a young age and whom already lack education or opportunity, their future becomes almost unimaginable when their husbands die.
I highly recommend the movie ‘Water’ (banned in India) which highlights the plight of widows.
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