Now, much water has flowed after the passage of the widow remarriage act piloted by Vidyasagar in colonial India.
The 2019 election didn’t spare anyone — dead or alive! Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was dragged into political mud-slinging when his bust was vandalised in a political crossfire.
Dr Sarmila Bose, an Oxford researcher, in an opinion piece, wondered how Vidyasagar could “set an example of enlightened leadership and spearhead very modern reforms against child marriage, polygamy and the mistreatment of widows… being a traditional Sanskrit scholar in a patriarchal society…”. Unfortunately, Vidyasagar, a forgotten icon, reappeared in the Indian consciousness for all the wrong reasons.
Now, much water has flowed after the passage of the widow remarriage act piloted by Vidyasagar in colonial India. Sadly, the social standing of widows in India in the new millennium has not improved much in the face of conflicting and multiple social expectations and high rates of deprivation. No wonder that successive Census data corroborated that mortality rates have been found to be 86 per cent higher among widows than among married women.
Just a couple of years back, horrifying details unravelled as to how “the dead bodies of widows in government-run shelter homes in Vrindavan are taken away by sweepers at night, cut into pieces, put into jute bags… and this too… after the inmates give money to the sweeper”. The traditional holy city, now more known as the “city of widows”, brings to its fold a thousand widows in search of salvation and survival. In a book titled Living Death: Trauma of widowhood in India, Dr Vasantha R. Patri, a Delhi psychologist and the chairperson of the Institute of Counselling, described their plight as being “physically alive but socially dead”.
Well, such spilling of the beans about the “city of temples” brought in its wake several PILs, and in one such PIL, the Supreme Court (SC) in 2012 pulled up the National Commission of Women (NCW) and its Uttar Pradesh counterpart, “for doing nothing… except preparing some reports” and asked for a ‘roster of widows’ in Vrindavan,” while in another in 2017, it asked the Centre and the Uttar Pradesh government to take “all steps to rehabilitate them… including the prospects of remarriage to rescue them from the modern-day stigma of widowhood…” and also constituted a committee of experts to study the status of widows.
Many recent research efforts say that the influx of widows from different parts of India and even from Bangladesh to the ashrams of Vrindavan, Mathura and Varanasi in the hope that, “God will not allow them to starve”, remains unabated. An NCW 1992 study also revealed that “the flesh trade flourishes in Vrindavan and Mathura in the full knowledge of the police, the administration, holy men and politicians… and diseases such as tuberculosis, dysentery and STDs are common, but medical help is virtually non-existent… the poor widows save their meagre earnings for their own last rites”.
If we go by numbers, the 2011 Census said that India is home to about 5.6 crore widows, about 7.37 per cent of India’s female population — the largest in the world. It has 10 per cent of the world’s 115 million poor widows. A joint study by the UNPF and HelpAge India in the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Odisha, West Bengal, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh projected a hike in India’s elderly population to about 173 million by 2026, in which elderly women are likely to outnumber elderly men, which implied a greater number of widows, the study commented.
India, however, in tune with its goal of welfarism, does have a number of pension, free food grains distribution schemes, etc for elderly persons and widows in rural and urban BPL households, which are now mostly done through direct benefit transfer (DBT) to their bank accounts, etc. But many dubbed them as “too meagre in amounts, but bountiful in bureaucratic requirements” which thus made “less than 10 per cent of all widows actually receiving the State’s largesse”. The Guild’s study on “Dimension of poverty of widows in Vrindavan” in 2010 also found that “just a little of over 25 per cent of the widows… only those staying in a home… who have somebody to do the running around and push them through the UP administration… could avail of such facilities”. Another Delhi-based NGO said that “they often don’t have any documents to prove their identity and without ID cards, they can neither access any government pension scheme or healthcare.”
Of course, widows in India face no legal barriers to remarriage or for inheritance and ownership of property, yet in reality, family pressures and a patriarchal mindset often deprive them from leading a life of their choice. A noted advocate working on widow-related cases in the Delhi high court made the observation that “widowhood is still a state of social death and even when the law is in their favour… social ostracisation continues…”. Dr Vasantha R. Patri opined that “legislation has never been sufficient in a traditional society like ours to eliminate social evils… and remarriage implies accepting the sexual needs of women, which is psychologically unacceptable to most people in patriarchal societies”. A women’s right activist also rued about the “societal double standard, like when a man loses his wife… nobody asks him to change his lifestyle… he is free to find a new wife...while a woman is cannot live a good life without her husband”. However, Arti Dhar, a freelancer who wrote a series of articles on widows, said that “India is going through a transition, when it comes to women… breaking or changing traditions is difficult and time taking…”.Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of Sulabh International, which has supported more than 850 widows in places like Vrindavan, Varanasi and Gupta-Kasi in Uttarakhand since 2012, felt that “it is a question of choice… If a widow wants to get remarried, she must be allowed, like other women,” and informed that Sulabh had facilitated many such marriages in the past. He said that apart from providing facilities and a helpline, Sulabh is keen “to bring back colours and joy to the lives of these white-sari clad women… free them from social isolation”.
Dr Mohini Giri, the founder and chairperson of the Guild of Service, commented that “stigmatisation of widows is not restricted to any particular part of India... Rather, it is a global issue” and added that “it is a cause of worry that now even a greater number of young abandoned widows, not only from the state of Bengal, but also from other states like UP and MP… are coming for shelter”. Dr Giri, however, was categorical that “capacity building and not cash doles” would benefit them in the long run. A 75-year old widow, Savita Chakraborty, now a caretaker at the Guild office in Delhi, who lost her husband at the age of 28, and was an inmate at the Guild’s shelter home in Vrindavan for a long time, said that “it was her professional training as a trained nurse that changed the course of her life”.
Meanwhile, the 2017 SC-appointed expert committee has come out with several long-term and short-term measures for widows in different situations like those living with families, living independently or in shelter homes, which include prevention of child marriages, protection from domestic violence and promotion of single-woman networks, etc while allowing easy access to social security, health services, legal aid, skill development and systematic monitoring of shelter homes. One can only hope that they are put into action soon.
Now, on a larger canvas, with 258 million widows around the world, nearly one in ten living in extreme poverty, the UN has finally acknowledged the seriousness of the issue, and since 2011, a day — June 23 — has been dedicated for action for those who remained so far “invisible, uncounted and ignored”.
The writer is a former director-general of Doordarshan and All India Radio and a former press secretary to the President of India