Breaking the chains of tradition, more than a hundred widows who live an isolated and tough life in the narrow alleys of Varanasi, on Monday shared a common platform with Hindu seers and scholars, and even dined with them.
The seers and sanskrit scholars converged on the holy city to explore ways of addressing the plight of widows. They quoted from the Dharm Shastra and Samaj Shastra, ancient Hindu scriptures, on the popular misconceptions regarding widowhood and conditions for widow remarriage.
The seminar was organized at the Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeet by NGO Sulabh International, known for promoting low-cost sanitation.
Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Shulabh, said he urged the scholars to extend help in strengthening their nationwide campaign against widowhood.
Shulabh recently launched a pension and welfare scheme for 150 widows of Varanasi.
Durga Devi, 60, who hails from Rajasthan and now lives in the Birla ashram in the city expressed contentment over the amenities received by her.
"Now we are getting food, clothes, shelter and medicine. We feel content. Sitting here with these seers and being treated with so much respect, we don't miss our relatives much," she said. Durga's sons moved back to Rajasthan after her husband expired 12 years ago as they could no longer support her.
Considered inauspicious and in some cases termed witches, hundreds of widows like her live in absence of family support in ramshackle houses in Varanasi, most of their time spent praying and looking for food. They are usually kept out of social functions.
Dr. Pathak said he intended to draft a bill and hand it over to Parliament to improve the condition of widows abandoned by their families. “If the draft bill is announced in Varanasi, one of the major seats of Hinduism, it will certainly be heard all across the country,” he said.
Citing the arrangements made by Shulabh in imparting education to the Vrindavan widows in three languages Hindi, Bengali and English, Mr. Pathak said they were planning the same in Varanasi.
"The focus would be on imparting education. Some amount of education and training will bring back self-confidence to them even at this old age," Dr Pathak said, adding that they would provide the widows vocational training for making garlands, preparing incense sticks, sewing and embroidery.
Since the widows in Varanasi are scattered, some living in ashrams and some in private premises, with a good number begging on roads and outside temples, Shulabh would conduct a survey to ascertain their precise number. That is being undertaken at the Durga Kund ashram, Birla ashram, the Nepal mandir and Sarnath ashram.
"My idea is to convene a National Seminar in the next couple of months on ‘Life Imprisonment Without Offence: Destiny of Widows in India’ to discuss the conditions of the widows in the country and also how to change thoughts, behaviour and attitude of the people towards them,” Dr. Pathak said.
Sulabh had launched a monthly pension scheme in Vrindavan a few months ago. Every widow is given Rs 2,000 per month and the NGO takes care of their health and other requirements, including entertainment in the form of organizing ‘ghazals’, ‘kirtans’ and ‘bhajan sandhyas’ and providing television sets with satellite connections.