Wedding bells for India's widows?; A Minister Hopes to Dispel India's Stigma towards Widows by Getting the Young Ones to Remarry



The Straits Times ( Singapore)  
March 9, 2008


By P. Jayaram, India Correspondent  

NEW DELHI – THE death of the husband was once literally the end of life for a woman in India.  

Long after the practice of Sati, or burning of widows on the funeral pyre of the husbands, was banned by the British colonial rulers in 1829, Indian society continued to treat widows barbarously.

According to Hindu scriptures, while a woman’s husband is alive, she is half his body. When he dies, she becomes half his corpse.  

So this half-a-person has only three options: She can burn on the funeral pyre with her dead husband; marry his younger brother; or lead a life of self-denial for the rest of her life – head shaved, wearing only rough, white cloth and eating simple food.

This has meant that widows had to beg by day and sleep on a cold, hard floor at night.  

Things have improved only marginally for Indian widows 60 years after the country’s independence.

Shunned by society, which considers them inauspicious, the widows are still economically, culturally and socially ostracised.  

That may all change if India’s feisty Minister for Women and Child Development, Mrs Renuka Chowdhury, has her way.

She has come up with an ambitious plan to get the young among the widows to remarry and be trained so that they can be independent.  

‘The proposal is that they should be given training so that they can earn their livelihood. The first thing, however, will be to get them remarried,’ she told a women’s empowerment seminar in Delhi in December.

But social activists do not think that getting them married is a great idea.  

‘During my four decades of work for the welfare of widows, remarriage has not been a pleasant experience,’ said Dr V. Mohini Giri, a social activist and a leading light in the women’s movement in India.

This is because the widows often had children and found adjusting to a life with a new man difficult, said Dr Giri, 70, who has managed to get 1,600 ‘war widows’ or widows of Indian Army soldiers killed in wars remarried.  

‘Instead, if you give them skills, that would help them more,’ said Dr Giri, whose Guild of Service has launched a dairy project for widows in Vrindavan.

Vrindavan and Varanasi, two popular Hindu pilgrim centres in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, are known as ‘Cities of Widows’ because of the hundreds of thousands of widows who end up there as beggars after being dumped by their relatives.  

Many young widows also end up as sex workers.

According to the 2001 Census, there are more than 34 million widows in the country and they account for 9 per cent of the total female population. Only 40 per cent of the widows are over 50 years of age.  

Dr Giri said there are more than 16,000 widows in Vrindavan and 10,000 in Varanasi.

‘All of them go there in search of death, waiting for death. They wait on the roads, they wait 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,’ she said.  

The women, many of whom were married off when they were babies and became widows when they were still children, have to chant prayers for several hours each day at local temples before they are given a cup of rice and a few teaspoons of lentils for food.

The society’s prejudice against widows came to the fore in 2000 during the shooting of Canadian film-maker Deepa Mehta’s Water, a sensitive portrayal of the plight of widows set in 1938, in Varanasi.  

The shooting was disrupted by Hindu fundamentalists. They burnt the film set and threw it into the Ganges River, saying that the movie portrayed Hindus in a bad light.

Mehta and her international film crew were ordered to leave by the state government. She finally shot the film in Sri Lanka.  

When BBC reported on the problem of the Vrindavan widows recently, an ethnic Indian in London complained to the Press Complaints Commission, protesting against the news, saying it blamed the problem of widows entirely on the ‘dominant Hindu’ community.

Ms Meera Khanna, a woman activist studying the economic status of the widows, said that although many widows are treated less harshly nowadays, they still face discrimination and neglect.  

‘We treat widowhood not as a natural stage in the life cycle of a woman; we treat it as some kind of an aberration. We accept death but we don’t accept widowhood,’ she told a women’s conference.  

Dr Giri, a widow herself and daughter-in-law of former president V. V. Giri, said even elite families like hers were not free of prejudices against widows.  

‘If I dress well and put on ‘bindi’, eyebrows are raised. They resent your presence at religious functions.’  

Bindi is the red or coloured dot that Hindu women put on their foreheads.

‘When the husband dies, the woman becomes a zero. A woman, who rules the house even in a rich family, suddenly finds herself bereft of all powers. She becomes an inauspicious person and nobody should even touch her,’ said Dr Giri.  

The plight of those less fortunate is much worse.

Ms Anita Yadav, 29, whose husband died of alcohol poisoning, fled to Vrindavan with her three young children.  

‘My brother-in-law kept trying to molest me. He’d come to my room again and again. I complained, but my in-laws took his side. They said, either marry him, or get out,’ the BBC quoted her as saying.

Minister Chowdhury said: ‘We always talk about helping widows, but in fact, very little gets done. Why else would so many widows find themselves utterly helpless and destitute in religious towns like Mathura and Vrindavan?’  

She said her ministry
will start the plan of getting the widows from Vrindavan remarried.

But it may not be easy. In a survey conducted by her ministry, an overwhelming 90 per cent out of the 255 widows interviewed said they were against remarriage, though 30 per cent of them had become widows by the age of 24.  

Officials said 70 per cent of them cited social and religious taboos for their opposition while 13 per cent said they did not believe in remarriage.






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