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Lys Anzia -WNN Features
“In many conservative Indian Hindu families, widows are shunned because they’re seen as bringing bad luck. Superstitious relatives even blame them for their husband’s death. The widow can become a liability with no social standing, an unwanted mouth to feed. Often they’re cast out of the family home,” said foreign correspondent Trevor Bormann in a recent June, 2007 interview with Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Dr. Mohini V. Giri, for the ABC – Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Once the widows of the Hindu holy city of Vrindavan lose their husbands their life “becomes zero,” says Dr. Giri, director of the Guild of Service in New Delhi. A widow herself, and tireless activist for women’s rights in India, Dr. Giri works specifically today for the “empowerment of marginalized women and children.”
“According to the Dharmashastra, the sacred Hindu legal text, covering moral, ethical and social laws, widows are expected to devote the remainder of their lives to the memory of their husbands,” says humanitarian photographer, Tewfic El-Sawy, after he visited the poorest ashram of Vrindavan. “By renouncing life’s luxuries and by withdrawing from society, critics of this practice have declared that such women are living a form of suttee, the now-outlawed practice of burning widows alive on the dead husband’s funeral pyre,” El-Sawy added.
“Imagine in front of a group of my relatives as large as this one, my bangles are smashed, my hair is shaved, my bindi removed,” Dr. Giri said before a conference for grief and renewal at the University of New England, Office of Multicultural Studies and Women’s Studies Department in 2005. “They are forced to wear white saris. Saddest of all is that they are often removed from their children and families, and abandoned,” continued Dr. Giri.
For many women in this culture, the loss of a husband can be an upheaval beyond belief. It can be a one-way ticket to isolation, poverty and despair. For thousands of women it can also mean a journey to a place unique in India – to a town considered very holy in India called Vrindavan.
In Vrindavan, India, women of all ages who have become widows are waiting for the moment they, too, will follow their husbands to the fields of death.
The widows in Vrindavan today can be found on the streets, in ashrams and other centers in Vrindavan. Vrindavan has over 4,000 temples today and many ashrams. The approximate number of widows living in the holy city today numbers over 20,000.
The latest national census counts widows living in locations across the Republic of India with numbers that reach millions. The largest number of widows currently living together in ashrams located in northern India are in Vrindavan.
Conditions in some of the ashrams of Vrindavan go from terrible, where sexual use and trafficking of younger widows occurs, to better ashram houses set up by leading women activists, like Dr. Giri and the Guild of Service, that encourage greater dignity for widows through better health care, by gaining learning skills like sewing and weaving and literacy training.
At Mathura ashram in Vrindavan conditions are critical as widows, abandoned on the death of their husbands with no resources of their own, appear with no chance for education, no protection from possible rape and no chance for a better life. They face situations of hunger, starvation and negligence as they try to survive with only one small plate of food a day.
These widows, many times, are deserted and admonished by the families of their husbands, leading them to leave and seek shelter away from their home in the ashrams of Vrindavan.
“It’s unbelievable that families would abandon their mothers. . . ,” said Dharan Mandrayar, a filmmaker who has been criticized by the press in India for the controversial subjects in his movies. His film “White Rainbow,” follows the “real life” story of a Vrandavan widow. “White Rainbow” was created as Mandrayar was “called to action” as he witnessed the living conditions of the widows of Vrindavan.”
Deepa Mehta is another filmmaker who has sought to bring the darker story of the widows of Vrindavan to the screen. Struggling against the protests of the town people of Vrindavan while trying to film, Ms. Mehta continued on with her production and moved the location to complete her movie. Her film “Water,” which was released in 2005 was later nominated for a U.S. Academy award. It shows life searingly through the eyes of an eight year old childbride named Chuyia, who became widowed on the death of her much older husband. It follows, too, the older-yet-young and beautiful widow, Kalyani, who is sold for sexual services as she is finally befriended by a young lawyer, a man who is a student of Mahatma Ghandi.
Although India’s widows today are not forced to die on the death of their husband – in ritual sati – by burning to death on their husband’s funeral pyre, they are still forced to undergo daily ritual humiliations, to beg for alms each day chanting, to live completely apart from society, to live lives of extreme poverty, lonely for their children, alone and hopeless. Younger widows, with no chance of remarrying, face strong cultural disapproval within their own families. They often flee dangerous hostile family situations or abuse.
Rising problems with widows and their husband’s family after the death of their husband can sometimes include sexual abuse from a husband’s brother or father, starvation or abandonment.
Once young beautiful widows have arrived at Vrindavan, in some of the bhajanashrams today, they sometimes face the terrible fate of sexual trafficking and sexual exploitation as the ashrams try to produce more money.
The only other alternative, to life in Vrindavan, for many of these widows is a life lived on the streets as a beggar in their own home region living under the humility of those she knows. Some of the ashrams today are also scattered with diseases like tuberculosis, dysentery and STDs. Most often, in the poorest ashrams medical help is virtually non-existent.
Most of the widows of Vrindavan are categorized today in India as war widows, political widows or religious widows.
“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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