Wake up call to care for widows after years of neglect

Indians are known all over for their strong faith in religion and religious gurus (leaders) and for their trust in their local community leaders. This got a stamp of approval during the polio eradication drive. Their large scale involvement in the drive proved fruitful in motivating people to get polio drops administered to their children. Now, once again these religious and community leaders are set to play a key role in the society – this time it is to bring a change in the lives of millions of widows living in India.

India has around 4 million widows, of which more than 15,000 are living in Vrindavan/Mathura – the twin religious towns of Uttar Pradesh state. It is believed that most of these widows come to Vrindavan due to their attachment for the Hindu God, Lord Krishna. The perception of these widows is that it is better to share their grief with their God than to undergo humiliation and disrespect by their families.

An effort is being made by a few voluntary organisations to use this religious belief of widows and bring reformative changes in their lives.

Making a move in this direction, voluntary organisations like Guild of Service with the help of UN Women, held a round table workshop of religious and community leaders in Vrindavan, last month. The event focused on "Improving status of widows and safeguarding their interests."

"The lives of these widows are often mired in poverty, neglect, and deprivation. The time has come for us to act and create space for widows in the mainstream policy and in the social welfare schemes. Their situation has to be recognised and addressed," said Anne F. Stenhammer, the Regional Programme Director, UN Women, South Asia.

Status of Widows in India:
 India is a home to approximately 40 million widows making every fourth house having a widow. Discrimination against these widows has followed a set pattern, cutting across all ages, religions, castes and other affiliations. Even in the 21st century they remain trapped within a cultural framework moulded by rigid precepts of patriarchy and hierarchy.

Thrown out of their homes after their husbands’ death, many widows have found shelter in Vrindavan. Surviving on mercy of others, these widows hail from different parts of the country but mostly from West Bengal, who come to live the rest of their lives in Vrindavan – which is considered a 'widow friendly town'.

Coming from a Ranjput family, 38 year old Maan Kanwar became a widow at the age of 25. It was a tender age to leave home in Puri and come to Vrindavan but circumstances forced her to take the big step. "Families do not want widows to roam around the house. They find a widow woman inauspicious if she is seen during any ritual, and a widow is also said to bring bad luck to the new brides. The family members do not take us as normal human beings, who need recognition, sympathy, love and compassion" the bitterness in Kanwar’s voice is deep-rooted.

A survey to gauge the situation of widows in Vrindavan was done last year by the Guild of Service and UN Women. It revealed that these women are living much below the poverty line defined by the World Bank, which says USD 1 (INR 46) a day is mandatory for a person’s survival. But about a third of these women in Vrindavan earn less than half a dollar a day. Although the government has a pension scheme for the widows, only 28 per cent of women fall into the eligibility criteria. and of those too, less than 11 per cent are actually getting it, the Guild of Service survey reported.

Though food is not a problem for them as people on pilgrimage to Vrindavan, donate considerable amount of food. This food (cooked and uncooked) is mostly sufficient to provide them with at least two staple diets of Indian meals. However, their living conditions are pathetic. Most of them do not have access to toilets and go in the open for defecation and those who have access they have to face dirty and unhygienic conditions. Due to poor dissemination of information and poor access to health services these women are not even aware of HIV/AIDS and over 70 per cent have not even heard of this infection.

"The purpose of the survey was to look at the poverty levels of these women, who are surviving on mercy of others and counting days of their lives. The survey also focused on their literacy level and the general attitude of people towards them. Besides, it explored the ability of these hapless women in accessing the benefit of various government schemes," explained Dr Mohini Giri, the Chairperson of Guild for Service.

Due to lack of education and early widowhoods, these women find it difficult to cope with their lives. Although there are a number of schemes for the welfare of destitute widows and senior citizens living below the poverty line, there are few beneficiaries because there is no proper registration or estimate of the actual number of widows living in the area. The widows are also unaware of these schemes and even the officials do not know how to implement these chemes.

Now the Guild of Service in association with UN Women is working with the leaders of communities and religious organisations of India to formulate a strategy for raising the status of women not only in Vrindavan and other parts of India but also in the nearby countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka.

UN Women Commitments:
 The three-year programme for the welfare of widows is funded jointly by UN Women, Swiss National Committee and the Standard Chartered Bank. The programme is to be implemented in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka to reduce the social ostracism faced by widows.

The programme profile includes collection of data and evidences to highlight the stigma faced by these widows by working with them so they openly share their problems. The second stage of the programme is to empower them so that they get a dignified place in the society and increase their access to public services. And finally, the programme will aim to get discriminatory social practices against widows, reviewed and repealed.

Plans are also afoot to work with local religious and community leaders so they can help to champion the cause of the widows. While in India, UN Women will work especially with widows affected by HIV, the focus will be on young widows in Nepal and in Sri Lanka attention would be on widows living in conflict areas.

The programme will be implemented in partnership with the Guild of Service and Astha Sansthan in India, the Women for Human Rights (WHR) in Nepal and Women’s Education and Research Centre in Sri Lanka.

Exercise by Religious Gurus:
To involve religious leaders, it was necessary to first know the views of these leaders on condition of widows. The Guild of Service and UN Women handed over a set of questionnaires to over two dozen religious and community leaders, who attended the workshop in Vrindavan.

The questionnaire aimed at finding out the perspective of these religious leaders on various issues like widow re-marriages, participation of widows in auspicious ceremonies, educating widows on health issues, especially with reference to HIV/AIDS, their literacy issue, on possibility of covering them under adult education and their access to welfare schemes.

Later, during a discussion based on the responses of the religious leaders, the fact was established that even the religious leaders were keen to bring a change in the lives of these hapless women.

Swami Aryavesh, the Convener of World Council of Arya Samaaj stressed on the need for women to have equal rights as that of men. "Both men and women have their own importance in human society and it is necessary that both evolve individually and equally. It is unfortunate that women are still considered second class citizens – this thinking has worsened the condition of widows. In order to improve their condition we have to change the mind-set of the society," he agreed on the fact.

These leaders advocated for a network of various religious organisations, which should jointly work for reforming the lives of these widows.

It was encouraging to see so many religious leaders acknowledging women power and advocating equal rights for women.

Dr Madhubala Nath, the Regional Policy Advisor, UN WOMEN said, "I am happy that a move has been made at the UN platform and a debate has started with the religious leaders on the condition of widows."

She summed up the outcome of the event:
* Widow-remarriage won support of all religious leaders.
* Dissemination of information about HIV/AIDS and easy access to health care facilities for the widows was an important concern for all leaders.
* It was agreed upon that there was a need to treat widows as agents of change rather than following a welfare approach.
* The widows should have property rights and families should be motivated to look after the widows in their families.
* Early marriage is an evil practice and all efforts should be made to discourage it.
* It was also decided that a regulatory system must be in place to discourage begging among widows with a sensitive approach to their financial needs.

"This is just a beginning. Since Guild for Service has been working with a large number of Muslim widows in Jammu and Kashmir and Godhra (Gujarat), similar workshops with religious leaders would soon take place there as well," said Dr Mohini Giri, the Founder Trustee, Guild for Service.

Alka Pande
(The author is a senior journalist based in Lucknow, India. W: alkapande.blogspot.com)

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