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Restoring lost dignity

In a society where a woman's status is linked to that of her husband, widows live a marginalised life. MOHINI GIRI reviews what needs to be done so that this segment of society can live with dignity.

THERE was spring in the air and festivities all around, since the country was celebrating Holi. The widows of Vrindavan looked at the review with stolen, secretive glances. That evening one of the residents in the Ashram Aamar Bari died. No pallbearer was available, since they were celebrating Holi or were inebriated. When their repeated pleas bore no fruit, the women acted as pallbearers, conducted the last rites themselves and cremated the body.

This was the first time that women had so courageously performed the last rites. Hedged in by taboos, they had finally broken some of the more stringent prohibitions. In a city known as the land of Lord Krishna, widows exist by begging. The widows in Vrindavan shunned by their families and exploited by the unscrupulous. The city has today become symbolic of the systematic and sustained devaluation of the dignity of women. The media has sporadically drawn attention to their humiliation. From West Bengal, the migration of deprived and abandoned widows to Vrindavan and other places is large. At Aamar Bari, run by the Guild of Service, in Vrindavan, there are 103 inhabitants. Many of them had given up hope of survival, but now want to again become useful members of society. They are being trained as auxiliary nurses and many are being adopted as grandmothers in families.

But, much more needs to be done. Fundamental questions on why widows suffer must be answered. Today, a widow is often abandoned, deprived of her property and driven out of her home, stripped of her dignity. In a society like India, patriarchy plays a crucial role in the marginalisation of widows.

What is to be done for them? We work with war widows who, in spite of having financial assistance from the Government, are deprived of emotional support. The Guild endeavours to work towards creating a climate of equalities through:

  • An effective alliance of civil society organisations to learn from the best practices of each region, while also being the voice of the millions of the voiceless

  • Lobby with individual State Governments to create an infrastructure that will make available adequate social security and educational schemes for low-income widows and their children.

  • Lobby with government and the legal fraternities for the formulation of laws that are gender sensitive and enable widows to claim their rights and share of inheritance. Review gender insensitive laws and rules, and discrepancies between statutory law and customary practice, and their implementation.

    The Government of India census report of 2001 reflects that 11 per cent of total female population i.e. 33 million are widows. While the majority are based in rural areas, a substantial number live in the urban areas also.

    To assuage the trauma, deprivation, ignominy and humiliation, it is imperative that she is empowered both socially and economically. While the media and service organisations focus on the difficulties of rural widows, those in urban areas too need support. Many, though employed, face severe economic constraints and hardships. While the Government provides some economic relief to working women and to senior women citizens (irrespective of their marital status), extra economic benefits should be provided. The Kevlar report inculcated that working widows be provided with an additional tax relief of Rs. 10, 000 a financial year. This measure would undoubtedly help the existing widows and would also providing incentives and motivate those who were not working.

    In order to achieve a degree of autonomy and restore their lost dignity, we need to raise the consciousness of the society and efforts must realise the strength locked within them so that their potential can be harnessed together to claim their personhood and change their marginalised condition. Is it not time, for us in the 21st Century, to break all mindsets to give this populace of Vrindavan, the grace of independence that is theirs by right?

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