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The plight of widows

Widowhood is not a choice. It is an inevitable part of life. Hence, the problem is not with the status. It arises only when widowhood becomes a reason for the stigmatisation and deprivation of women.

Widowhood in South Asia is the harbinger of acute discrimination, an offshoot of patriarchal thinking. Widows are accused of being witches and "man eaters", made to drink the bathwater of their husbands’ dead bodies and have unprotected sex to "cleanse themselves of the sin of causing their husbands’ death" — just a few of the many atrocities committed on them.

In February, I got the opportunity to attend a seminar on "Discrimination and deprivation of widows in South Asia" conducted by SANWED, in association with UN Women, at UN House, New Delhi. Delegates from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka participated. The seminar facilitated thoughtful contemplation and helped me take away a lot of learning.

According to the United Nations, India is home to almost 42 million of the world’s 115 million poor widows. Vrindavan, called the "city of widows", has an estimated 20,000 widows who are mostly children. Many widows sell off their daughters or marry them away as child brides, thus providing legitimacy to the evil practice that looms large in society. There is also an intersectionality of class and gender that unfolds here. With rise in poverty, the risk of being manipulated into prostitution gets higher.

In Sri Lanka, thousands of women were widowed in the ethnic conflict and separatist insurgency. When a Hindu Tamil widow wears the red pottu and flowers in her hair, she is accused of "sexually exciting" men. But we never see a widower being made to wear white clothes and neither is he stopped from eating meat after his wife’s death.

Widows in Afghanistan are called besarparast, meaning "household without a head". There was an article about Khadija, an 18-year-old Afghan woman who was forced to get married three times to three brothers, thus highlighting how widows are forced into marriages. In Pakistan’s Jallozai camp, refugee widows from Afghanistan are subjected to acute sexual abuse. Akhter Imam, the first woman Professor of the University of Dhaka who was widowed at 25, revealed how her elder woman relatives got her a white sari just a few hours after her husband’s death.

Thus, what we can notice throughout is the unambiguous interplay between gender and widowhood, indeed proving that the "personal is political". Widowed men are "expected" to get remarried and face no exploitation but a widow has to think umpteen number of times about her family before getting remarried and even if she does, her children from the previous marriage are mostly not accepted.

It is high time that the stigma associated with widowhood was erased. For this, proper awareness should be created through mobilisation. We need to look beyond training widows only in the "socially constructed activities" for women such as stitching and making pickles. Young widows need to be given education so that they can go on to become teachers, lawyers, civil servants, journalists, engineers, Army officers and so on.

The amount of money that is provided under the existing schemes for widows is hardly enough for sustenance. Self-help groups and micro credit should be encouraged among widows for which loans should be provided to "widow SHGs" at low interest rates. A stronger government-NGO partnership is essential to build care shelters for widows. In places such as Vrindavan, where many widows seek shelter on temple premises, NGOs can tie up with temple authorities who on receiving complaints from widows about sexual abuse can inform the former to enable intervention. We need films that show widows as empowered, fearless women who break societal barriers in order to do what they deserve in life and not as timid, suppressed women. Urgent institutional reforms that ensure easy access to rights for widows have become the need of the hour.

There is also an urgent need to adopt new perspectives on widowhood. It is essential to break through the glass ceiling of ingrained parochial patriarchy and create a gender equal and humanely just world. With proper awareness and policies, we can hope to make great strides towards the achievement of rights for the widows of South Asia that will set an example for the rest to help usher in a world where widows live a life of dignity, equal rights and equal standing.

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2021 11:19:35 AM |

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