Hindu widows, the poorest of the poor, are shunned from society when their husbands die – not for religious reasons, but because of tradition and because they are seen as a financial drain on their families. They cannot remarry. They are invisible to society. Even their shadows are considered bad luck. With little social or economic status, many become destitute, living in the streets.
For the estimated 40 million widows in India, this is a harsh reality.
In India, a woman is respected only if she is a mother, daughter and wife. 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 a man dies, his widow is seen as bad luck; she is shunned from her community and exiled from family and friends. She is no longer welcome in the homes of those who once loved her. Her presence at family functions is totally forbidden. Most times her grown children even turn her away. The situation is even more extreme within India’s rural community, where it is much more tradition-bound; in urban areas, there are more chances and possibilities to live a normal life.
But the majority of India’s 1.1 billion population is rural.
While in some areas in India, widows may be allowed to keep their hair and dress in colored saris, the custom in many communities dictates that she is to shave her head, loose all adornments such as flowers and bangles and must wear white clothing until the end of her days. It is not customary for a widow to remarry, no matter how young she is, though a widower may remarry as often as he likes. Many widows no longer have a life they wish to live for.
Most widows feel this struggle is unbearable so they leave to go to the holy cities, hoping death will free them. With no education or employable skill they go to ashrams (spiritual communities) where, if fortunate, they may find shelter in structures built more than a century ago. These cramped, leaky spaces accommodate about three women each, who sleep on torn sacks. Here they may sing and pray for hours each day for a meager ration of food. If they are unable to sing, they will not receive anything to eat that day. A large number of widows stay on the streets and beg for alms, while some younger attractive widows are sold into prostitution.
Although a possibility often exists for a widow to receive a very small pension, the task of accessing that pension is a Herculean task. Applying for a pension means proving destitution, attaining written forms that are not easily available, presenting proof of age and traveling to government offices far off from their villages. The widow, most often illiterate, must pay a private doctor if she is to obtain a birth certificate. In the end, her application may be rejected as there is a great deal of arbitrariness as to whether the widow is truly destitute. Many widows simply give up or don’t even try due to the complications of dealing with the government. Others may simply be too ill or mentally and/or physically disabled to deal with the process or even know it exists.
The widows of India can be helped to attain the ability to become active and valuable community members. We can bestow our kindness and caring upon them to aid the widows in enriching their lives.