“Nothing to Go Back To” – The Fate of the Widows of Vrindavan, India
“I came here with nothing. Even on the train, I had to sit on the floor and not on a bench,” said widow, May Devi who came to Vrindavan as a widow at the age of 33. “I had to sit by the toilet and slept under the bench on the floor. Since I came, I have never returned home. This is my only home now.”
Even though the right to remarry was placed into Indian law in 1856 and the limited right for widows to inherit was given to women a hundred years later in 1956, widows who come from rural areas of India have little to no education. Marrying sometimes as young as ten, they have little access to reach their legal rights.
Having the strength to push alone against family, neighbors and local community to receive their earned human dignity is often beyond them.
A recent, July 2007, study of the widows of Vrindavan supported by UNIFEM titled, “Spirituality, Poverty and Charity Brings Widows to Vrindavan” by Ms. Usha Rai ,sheds current light on many of the widow’s conditions today. In the recent study, Ms. Rai found that widows arrived at Vrindavan for numerous reasons. 41% came because they consider it a “place of God,” 20% felt completely without help and alone in their original home environment. 14% had severe problems with members in the home. Others in the study came to Vrindavan to leave life-threatening poverty and hunger. And another also mentioned sexual abuse.
Many of the widows in this study mentioned they had “nothing to go back to.” Living under loss of their property with complete loss of income with no chance to gain more in life, most of the widows arrive with no possessions. Many widows come from the most rural regions of India in West Bengal. Other widows come from the poorest regions of Bangledesh.
Suggestions made to help the living conditions for the widows of Vrindavan in the recent UNIFEM study include: Enacting legislation to make all Indian marriage registrations “compulsory.” This is to help prohibit and lessen the number of child marriages still occurring in India today. To set up more shelters for widows with adequate food and proper health care. To educate the widows about their legal rights. To teach them about the “widow’s pension” and other programs available for them through India’s legal system. To promote a cultural change in attitude about widowhood among conservative Hindus through cooperation of Hindu religious leaders. And most important, to make skilled training programs available to the widows to create new lives.
In a co-sponsored 2002 study titled, “Status of Widows of Vrindavan and Varanasi – A Comparative Study” by The Guild of Service and The National Commission for Women India, it was found that; of all elderly widows in Vrindavan, aged 70 and older, 52.5% live in rehabilitation homes, 42.5% live in boarding houses and an astonishing 41.5% of all elderly widows live under extreme harsh conditions on the streets of Vrindavan without the support of any dwelling.
Most of the widows of Vrindavan “Come here in search of death, waiting for death. They are waiting on the roads, they are waiting on street corners and ultimately it’s so sad that when they die, there’s no one even to pick up their bodies because a widow’s body is inauspicious,” said Dr. Mohini V. Giri.
Lack of education, lack of literacy and knowledge of basic human rights along with strong cultural beliefs in the conservative Hindu caste system and extreme poverty are the major causes of suffering today among the widows.
“I met widows who were cheerful and feisty but others appeared sick, infirm and miserable. I also witnessed many instances of poignant ‘sisterhood’ moments and genuine affection between many widows,” says photo journalist, Tewfic El-Sawy, in his photo essay, “White Shadows.”
“The situation of widows in North India is worsened by the system of Patri-local residence, whereby widows cannot return to their parents’ home even though they are often rejected by their in-laws,” was a major point made in the study by The Guild of Service and The National Commission for Women India.
“On the one hand, we are celebrating the (2007) election of the first woman president of the country (of India) and on the other, widowhood continues to be stigmatized. Just because they have lost their husbands, their rights are taken away from them. They are discarded by society and Vrindavan becomes their only haven,” said Dr. Mohini Giri.
See the unforgettable and haunting series of photos on the widows of Vrindava, “WHITE SHADOWS,” by Tewfic El-Sawy.
The 15,000 widows that live in Vrindavan suffer from societal exclusion which brings with it disease, poverty, lack of opportunity and exploitation. This short educational video is a www.maitri.org.in production.
Human rights journalist, radio broadcast producer and 2007 Pushcart prize nominee Lys Anzia is editor-at-large for Women News Network – WNN.
Sources for this article include UNIFEM – South Asia, ABC – Australian Broadcasting Corporation, BBC News, CNN News, Associated Press, Womensenews, GriefandRenewal.com, The Hindu Magazine, “White Shadows” by Tewfic El-Sawy, CCDS – Center for Communication and Development Studies, Feminist.com, The Guild of Service North-India, Commonwealth National Human Rights Commission, The National Commission for Women India and India News.
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