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The struggle for an identity

In some form or other, widows have faced subjugation. An international conference on `Capacity building of discriminated women — widows', to be held in Delhi later this week, is sure to serve as a platform to express views and concerns about their status, says MOHINI GIRI.

The widows of Vrindavan ... cause for concern.

ONE of the major problems of South Asia is that of missing women, but even more pathetic is the position of those women who are discriminated against, socially, culturally and religiously. Even though the constitution of every country guarantees equality to all, discrimination against widows is still prevalent.

  • Social discrimination — this discrimination is given the approval of traditions and religious sanctions.

  • Economic deprivation — the traditional breadwinner is no longer alive and the woman is not equipped with the necessary qualifications or skills to make a living.

  • Legally marginalised — Unaware of her rights and incapable of asserting herself, a woman has no recourse to judicial help.

  • Lack of support — very few governments and non-government organisations view widows as a special category with individual problems and special status.

    It is now vital to raise the issue of discriminated widow as a issue of international concern.

    The Guild of Service, as part of its cohesive South Asian approach, will be holding a regional conference on ``Capacity Building of Discriminated Women — Widows'' on February 1, 2 and 3. It will bring together social activists, religious leaders, media representatives, members of the government institutions concerned as well as widows who have experienced social and economic marginalisation.

    The objective of the conference will be:

  • Vital gender bonding through networking in the South Asian region.

  • Research, to document the status of widows in the region, emphasising the commonalities and diversities resulting from socio-economic, religious and cultural differences.

  • Attempt to duplicate the best practices on empowerment of widows.

  • Governmental intervention in the form of (a) social policy (b) legal remedies and safe guards.

  • Creating awareness among United Nations' systems so that the plight of widows becomes an international issue of concern.

  • Making use of U.N. bodies and programmes for implementation of empowerment projects.

  • Analysing the role of religion and traditional practices on the status of widows.

  • Advocacy with policy-making bodies.

  • South Asian countries practice social norms that are very similar. Widows face social, economic and legal handicaps. Either by tradition or practice, these widows have been denied their fundamental rights of equitable justice.

    They are singled out as victims of social abuse at the time of their husband's death and kept out of social occasions.

    Delegates from Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan (refugees based in Pakistan) who are engaged in and have experience in dealing with issues concerning widows, are expected to take part.

    It is proposed that for the purpose of the seminar these countries will undertake a detailed research on the following aspects of widowhood:

  • Social religious and traditional norms, which perpetuate marginalisation of widows

  • Short-sighted welfare schemes which do not take into consideration the social and economic deprivation of widows

  • Status of widows with disabilities

  • Impact of globalisation and the of spread of HIV/AIDS

  • What being a single parent means to his/her child/children

  • Patriarchal norms that govern property rights

    In order to see the expected outcome, the following strategy will be adopted.

  • To universalise the ongoing efforts in all countries for social acceptance of the widow in society.

  • To initiative steps to eliminate bias against widows in developmental programme and institutions.

  • To adopt an integrated approach towards empowering widows through effecting convergence of existing services, resources, infrastructure and manpower planning.

  • To organise widows into self help groups for the purpose of asserting their rightful place in society.

  • To equip widows with the necessary skills required to bring up children.

  • To promote the status of widows rights on the international human rights agenda.

    For the past three decades, the Guild of Service has been trying to reach out to widows. Efforts have been made to open up avenues to help widows integrate into the mainstream.

    The emphasis has been on creating awareness in public, religious institutions and government agencies. As their present condition is a result of social injustice, it is imperative that a preferential policy be implemented for the upliftment of this marginalised group.

    It launched its comprehensive programme at Vrindavan, called Aamar Bari to ameliorate the suffering of the neglected lot. A home for destitute widows of Vrindavan was inaugurated in 1998. Since traditional accommodation like an ashram was not available, the Bhagchandka Haveli at Guyana Gudri, Vrindavan, was established.

    There are hundred small rooms in this haveli. Each widow has her own room. Most women here suffer from old age problems including poor eyesight, nutritional deficiencies and respiratory and orthopaedic problems. While a lack of mobility prevents the elderly from going to hospital, what all of them have in common is financial constraints.

    While some women receive a pension, others survive only on the dole disbursed at Bhajan Ashrams and temples. Those capable of entrepreneurship usuallly have problems in marketing the products.

    The economic empowerment of a widow or single woman is perhaps the most essential form of support that can be extended. It not only helps provide regular sustenance but also boosts her esteem in society. Keeping this in mind, a group of such women are being trained to become nursing assistants. In addition to nursing lessons they are helped in improving their educational skills. Sixty women have undergone training and all of them have been employed which ensures them a good income. Regular counselling is also given to mothers in the haveli.

    The guild is of the view that while it is important providing care and protection to the most destitute of these women, it is equally imperative to make society aware of the real status of these women. In this regard, the institution has brought out a monograph "Widows: Victims of Discrimination", which has articles and studies by personalities and social workers.

    It is necessary that concerted action by all institutions engaged in the service of widows should be undertaken. In a meeting with representatives of the Planning Commission, the guild presented its own analysis of the problem and a plan of action.

    It is encouraging to find that based on the recommendations of the Planning Commission the Ministry of Finance has proposed making a special allocation for the widows.

    As a civil society, we will have to ensure the preservation of human rights of individuals, without favour or prejudice.

    The onus is on government, institutions and society to work together for a just and equitable social order. However, rights of individuals are as important as their duties towards society. Under no circumstances should State support be unqualified and unconditional.

    The writer is honorary chairperson and vice-president of the Guild of Service, New Delhi.

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