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Widows Of India : A Tale Of Double Misfortunes

I always shudder at the thought I might one day be called called a -"Dakin", which means witch in Hindi. I will never forget the afternoon when my best friend from school told me why her mother and she had decided to move to the small town of Jamshedpur from her native village in West Bengal.

Her mother, Ratna, was 25 years old, when she became a widow. Her husband had died after a prolonged illness. When he was alive, they were fairly well-off, as her husband owned a fair amount of land and a shop. But no sooner had he died, the village shunned her and called her a "husband - eater" ! She said her family abused her and even beat her if she asked for food. Eventually they told her she should leave the village with her daughter, a suggestion she followed, as it was obvious to her by then it was the best option she had. And so she had come to the nearby town of Jamshedpur and started life afresh with whatever little she had left.

Widowhood in India is considered a curse, an aberration and a misfortune of evil proportions. "Dakin", "Husband-eater"and "Randi"(prostitute) are just some of the words used to describe a widow. The social stigma attached to her status is so great that it "de-sexes" her, and she quickly goes from being referred to as “she” to the impersonal "it".

One woman, who has faced extreme ostracism is Bimala Kumar. I first met Bimala in our organization called Deoraj, which works relentlessly to put smiles on the underprivileged faces. She had come to enquire about free supply of books for her 14 -year-old daughter. Draped in a faded sari, she looked haggard and weak, her pain apparent by hundreds of deep wrinkles in her face. Bimala has lived in Delhi for almost 15 years. Life was not easy for Bimala even as a teenager, when she was married off to a laborer almost twice her age. "My husband died when I was 19," whispers Bimala, now 33. She finds it difficult to express herself, and her unfinished sentences are a testimony to the trauma she suffered at the hands of the men of her village when her husband died. "Five men locked me in a room and beat me until I fell unconscious," recounts Bimala. "Before the beatings started, almost the entire village of about 3000 people had gathered around my house to witness the volley of verbal abuse, but not one raised a finger to stop those men." Shattered, Bimala had to give up her land and leave the village the next day to find a place nearby in a decrepit, slum area of Delhi called Krishna Colony. The anguish of being branded a "witch" and facing de-humanizing treatment was difficult to overcome, but Bimala refused to succumb. "I wanted to be a survivor, not a victim," she says. She now earns her own living working as a housemaid. She says: "The joy of finding my identity and becoming self-sufficient has been my reward." Though she still misses her village, Bimala does not plan to return there. Ever.

There are more than 40 million widows in India - almost 10 percent of the country's female population. According to the United Nations article 'Women 2000'- promoting goals for the advancement of women : "Widows are painfully absent from the statistics of many developing countries and they are rarely mentioned in the multitude of reports on women's poverty, development, health or human rights published in the last 25 years. Due to the persistent belief that widowhood is largely a ‘women's issue’ rather a social issue, we have limited resources and associations working to help them." This article emphasizes the fact that the subject of widowhood and the attempts to end the discrimination against them is especially important in developing countries like India, where statistical data on them is limited.

For the majority of widows in India, life is still what some have described as a "living sati", a reference to the now outlawed practice of widow burning. According to 2,000-year-old sacred texts by Manu, the Hindu progenitor of mankind: "A virtuous wife is one who after the death of her husband constantly remains chaste and reaches heaven though she has no son." Many widows, whether young or old, seem to have internalized these age-old rituals, too rarely asking themselves or others whether they are rational – or fair. Widowed women forego their colorful saris, jewelry, follow a restrictive diet and even shave their heads, subjugating themselves to the stereotyping of society which always expects them to be a certain sort of a person. Not expected to be happy without her spouse by her side, or be a part of any auspicious occasion in a household.

Meera Khanna, a trustee of the New Delhi based Women's Initiative For Peace in South Asia and a contributor to a book called- Living Death: Trauma Of Widowhood In India, writes: "The widow is "uglified" to deprive her of the core of her femininity. It is an act symbolic of castration. She is deprived of the red dot between her eyebrows that proclaims her sexual energy."

Widows are considered an economic and social burden throughout the Indian society. While some are relegated to a life of seclusion in their own dwelling, others are evicted either by their own family or by their in-laws, who want to prevent them from inheriting money or property.

Vrindavan, the holy town of Lord Krishna and Radha in the Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh, is now home to over 6,000 widows. Known as the- "city of widows", this town is thronged by women young and old whose husbands have died, especially from Bengal. Some come here with the intention of devoting their remaining years to the service of Lord Krishna. Many others come to escape the brutality they face at home, while still others have been thrown out by their children, who no longer wanted them around. Temples in the area hire them to sing devotional hymns for three to four hours per day, for which they are paid the measly sum of two Rupees (about four cents) along with a quarter of dal (lentils) and a bowl of rice.

"Widows don't have many social rights within the family," says Ranjana Kumari from the Center for Social Research, a group that works to empower women. The situation is even more extreme in some of India's rural communities. "There, it is much more tradition-bound; in urban areas, there are more chances and possibilities to live a normal life." The many widows who do not possess any formal means of identification are unable to obtain the state benefits they theoretically qualify for. About 28 percent of the widows in India are eligible for pensions, but of that number, fewer than 11 percent actually receive the payments they are entitled to. In Vrindavan, many widows, especially the young, end up as prostitutes or are sexually exploited by the heads of the ashrams they live in.

One woman, a widow herself, has been a leader of the cause of the widows in Vrindavan for the past decade. Dr.V. Mohini Giri is a social activist, scholar and a leader of the women's movement. Her mother was widowed when Giri was 9 years old, and although she was still so young, she saw clearly what a struggle it was. Giri then lost her own husband when she was 50, and was put through the same humiliating experience. She was even asked on occasion not to attend weddings because her presence was considered bad luck.

"Generally, all widows are ostracized," she says. "An educated woman may have money and independence, but even that is snatched away when she becomes a widow. We live in a patriarchal society. Men say that culturally as a widow you cannot do anything: you cannot grow your hair, you should not look beautiful."

She adds, "It's not the women we need to change – it’s the mind-set of society.” Giri has successfully set up and dedicated a home to the elderly widows of Vrindavan called - "Ma Dham". It has so far cared for more than 500 widows. Another refuge run by Giri is called "Amar Bari"- which means my home in Bengali . It has become a true home for many Indian widows, who enjoy the freedom of growing their hair long and discarding the traditional white saris in which society obliges them to dress after the death of their husbands.

Despite her perseverance and her success, she says, "Mine is but a drop in the ocean."

However, widowhood is not a punishment and should not lead to "social death". A widow is first and foremost a human being, and her marital status cannot be a criterion in determining her independence or position in society. Why should we seek to appease a patriarchal tradition that stipulates a male presence is necessary to reaffirm a woman's place in our society and, quite simply, her existence? It is hard to imagine the hardship women have to suffer when their husbands have died. But it is no less tragic to have your family throw you out of their homes or people labeling you a witch,- just because you no longer have someone to call your husband. It is shocking to even imagine any mother alone in a strange city, begging for alms or resorting to any extreme measure in order to earn her living.

India, which is often projected as an accepting and multi-cultural society to the external world, in reality remains a highly discriminated country. The discrimination starts from home at an early age. Women are constantly made to realize their worth and value simply on the terms of being somebody's wife. Even such words as "helpless", "shunned" or "inauspicious", used to describe widows, invokes nothing but a feeling of empty pity for them.

But widows do not need our pity. Instead, as a conscientious society, we should focus on helping them live their own lives and accomplish their own goals. Like Bimala, there are many others, trying to find a way of earning a decent living and lead a dignified life.

Facilitating property rights, increasing government pensions, widening the options for widows to remarry and establishing wider remunerative employment opportunities are just some of the measures that should be taken to help one of the most neglected sections of our society. But when I think of widows like Bimala and then of the other women I know, it is clear that the negative social attitude towards widows is merely a reflection of the general attitude towards all women. Had the conditions for widowers been as adverse as those of widows, it is likely that people whose spouses had died would have attracted far more support and attention.

Most importantly for India’s widows, though, is to put a stop to the current practice of isolation and alienation. No woman should face what Bimala or many other women like her endure once their husbands die.They must be embraced for what they are : a valuable section of our society. Dignity and self-respect are vital for overcoming any kind of distress- emotional or physical. And that is why we need to take responsibility for making them feel they are not alone. They are part of us. Just as much as any other human being.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

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Comments

Precious M's picture

Waoh Mukut!

This article is a great call for action.
I feel bad about the way widows are mistreated in India.
But because Mukut is there, change is on the way.
I have also learned some things about Indian culture.
Great work, sister!

Love,
Precious

My pen speaks

Mukut's picture

Together we will

Precious, you are always very kind with words. Widows live a life of hell but it should not be so. The traditional Hindu widows are especially bound by the age old customs which force them to lead of penury and alienation.

Wish our society understands better and give them the life they deserve.

Thank you my darling for reading it and commenting. Your feedback means a lot to me.

Love

Mukut Ray

Dear Mukut,

What a great article! It is well written and provides a true account of the lives of widows in India. I am of Indian descent but born in Malaysia (3rd generation) and this tradition of ostracizing and discriminating widows even exist in my community. My grandmother wears a white saree blouse, does not have her nose piercings on anymore and does not wear flowers. Widows are also not invited to "auspicious" events or given the due respect. It is an awful "custom" and I find it so hard to challenge it even within my family especially at main events.

I can't even imagine what young widows go through. It is an entirely different experience for them and the discrimination and stereotypes have to stop!

Your article definitely creates that awareness and across borders I hope that we can challenge and eliminate the practice of isolation and alienation all together.

A group that I am aware of that works on the issue of widowhood is WPD - http://www.widowsforpeace.org. You may want to share your article with them as they could post a WP correspondent's article on their website which is relevant to their work as well.

All the best and keep up the great work!

Warm wishes from Malaysia,

Gaya

Mukut's picture

Thank you Jags

Unfortunate to know that dehumanizing widows exist in your community as well. Why do we forget that they still remain humans and not objects to be ridiculed upon.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and truly appreciate your feedback.

I shall definitely look into the website you have provided. Thanks for sharing.

Love,

Mukut Ray

lynnemhealy's picture

Wow!!

I was looking forward to reading your assignment, Mukut, and you have not disappointed me. As you know, the treatment of widows in India was something I was totally unaware of. This article grabbed my attention from the beginning and provides so much powerful information. With voices like yours, and the women you quote, speaking out this shocking practice of ostracising and demonising widows will be less easy for Indian society to condone. Great work Mukut ... thank you :-)

Lynne Healy
www.lynnehealy.co.uk

Mukut's picture

Thank you Lynne

Thank you my super lady ! Without your time and effort, I would not be able to achieve this. Thank you so much for listening to me and supporting me, throughout.

Lots of love,

Mukut Ray

joy Spencer's picture

Great Article!

Mukut,

This was a great article! Learned a great deal about widowhood in traditional Hindu culture. I had no idea and feel that you really opened up an important discussion. Your point about ending isolation and alienation really resonated with me, especially in light of what I will be looking at in my own frontline journal. Nicely done and I look forward to seeing more.

Mukut's picture

Dearest Joy

What a lovely name you have- Joy ! Thank you so much for reading my article and posting such lovely words.

Look forward to reading and learning more from you.

Love,

Mukut Ray

LatiNegra's picture

Mukut, This is so moving. My

Mukut,
This is so moving. My goodness. I had no idea that this was happening in India. I love your call to action and learned a lot about tradition in Hindu culture. My heart goes out to you. I'm so proud of you for lifting your voice.

Ynanna Djehuty
Certified Birth Doula and Writer
Email: ynanna@thesewatersrundeep.com
Website: thesewatersrundeep.com

Mukut's picture

My dearest Ynanna

Hello beautiful lady, all prepared to join school ? Am sure you are super excited. I wish you all the best in your journey. Thank you for reading and commenting. You are a beautiful writer yourself. So proud of you !

Lots of love,

Mukut Ray

Y's picture

Keep on ROARING, Mukat. There

Keep on ROARING, Mukat. There is nothing more feared than a mother tiger.

In reading your powerful words, I had almost despaired when you surprised me with hope for the future. You are proposing real solutions being backed by powerful women in their own right, such as yourself and Dr.V. Mohini Giri.

I have just spent several weeks with a widow in Appalachia, married and a mother when she was fourteen years old. The shunning of widows and divorced women is actually world-wide, even though it is more subtle in the U.S. She has suffered greatly in the loss of her oldest son who stepped in after the death of her husband.

What strengthens women is building their own lives separate from their fathers before they take on husbands and children. We can then band together in community to support each others' strengths and assist each other in our accommodating our weaknesses.

Blessings to you.
Yvette

Y

Mukut's picture

Dearest Yvette

Your words are always encouraging and inspiring ! Thank you for taking time out to read mine and for your comments. Sad to know that ill treatment of widows continue else where as well. We must assist in helping to eradicate the shaming and shunning of widows, throughout.

Thank you for your time.

Lots of love,

Mukut Ray

Ayunnie's picture

Horror of Widowhood

Its sad to note how widows are mistreated since time immemorial. I have also noted with concern that widowhood discrimination is almost worldwide. in many African cultures the case is the same. no wonder i will continue championing girl-child education and economic empowerment for women. This will enable them move forward fairly well in the absence of the spouse.

Thank you Mukut for bringing this story to the limelight, and the way u are working to address the issue. Keep up the good work.

I am also grateful for the sample u gave us on FB on how to BOLD an area in our journals. I wish to know how to ITALICIZE a sentence.

@ Nairobi KENYA
Women have impeccable character, if tapped society realizes quantum leap in development

Mukut's picture

Thank you Ayunnie

Ayunnie, your story was great ! So inspiring and moving. You are a passionate change maker who is working relentlessly to impact change in your community. Kudos to you, dear !

Regarding Italicizing, here's what you need to do:
yourtext

Delphine had posted sometime back in the mentors and correspondents group, regarding how to bold and italicize your text. If you wish, you can check that.

Lots of love to you,

Mukut Ray

Greengirl's picture

Well done Mukut

You never fail to strike the right chord with and through your writing.

Thank you for sharing in very deep and vivid terms about the challenges widows in India face. Though I know that life is not any better for widows in Nigeria, I have learnt a lot from your piece; particularly about how Indian's social cultural practices enshrines discrimination.

With your permission, I will share this piece with Anna, the activist I interviewed for my Module 1 assignment. Being a widow who has experienced stigmatization and overcome it, she is determined to turn around the dilemma of other widows in Nigeria.Good news though is that many of them are getting together to find a way out of the backside that society has pushed them.

Your voice counts in the struggle to liberate widows in India and beyond!

Greengirl

Mukut's picture

My GreenGirl !

You are an inspiration for all of us. I truly admire you and all that you are doing to bring change in your community. I really hope you win that award.

I love you so much ! Yes, do share my article with Anna, in the hope that widows all around the globe find that one voice to end discrimination against them.

Thank you so much.

Love,

Mukut Ray

Dear Mukut,

Thank you for this informative article! The state of widows in India is not much different from the state of widows in Bangladesh.

I particularly liked this line in your article:

|| Why should we seek to appease a patriarchal tradition that stipulates a male presence is necessary to reaffirm a woman's place in our society and, quite simply, her existence? ||

I guess this is a global problem. In Bangladesh too, young girls are usually taught that men can live alone but women cannot live alone.

I wish you all the best!

Warmly,
Monica

Mukut's picture

Monica, you are brilliant !

Monica, you must know that I admire your writing style a lot and look forward to reading your posts. You voice touches the heart ! Very gifted ! Thank you for taking time out to read my article and commenting.

Lots of love,

Mukut Ray

Wendyiscalm's picture

Learned a lot

Hi Mukut,

I learned a lot from your article. Really informative and interesting.

Ubuntu(I am who I am because of who we are together),

Wendy

Wendy Stebbins
Founder/CEO
I AM ONE IN A MILLION Non-Profit Organization focused on helping street orphans and vulnerable children in Livingstone, Zambia Africa.

Mukut's picture

I am happy

I am happy to have found your support. Thank you so much.

Lots of love,

Mukut Ray

Iryna's picture

We are equal

So strong sounds your voice, Mukut, for these women! You are drawing very visible pictures of unbearable life widows have to live in India. The worst they suffer because something what they did not do! Poor women receive the strongest hit from life loosing their husbands and then even much stronger being rejected by people. You can never know if you or your husband will live longer, so you are always under the risk. It should not be in this way. Any woman deserves respect and support, especially in the moments when she needs them the most! Mukut, you are the one who give this hand of support and you can be proud because you are making a good thing!
Warmest wishes,
Iryna

Mukut's picture

Thank you Iryna

You have an extremely passionate, strong voice Iryna. I admire you and the way you express yourself through your articles. Thank you for your feedback. Love you !

Cheers,

Mukut Ray

Nechesa's picture

Kudos, Mukut

You did it again (as I knew you would). This topic doesn't get half the attention it needs and I'm so happy you covered it. With all the stories coming out of India - even the ones dealing with gender issues - you rarely hear stories like these. Thanks for putting the plight of widows in the forefront so that whenever we hear discussions on the rights of India's citizens, they are not forgotten.

Nechesa

Mukut's picture

You are amazing

Thank you Nechesa, for your encouragement and support. Love you!

Hugs,

Mukut Ray

pelamutunzi's picture

well done

this was such an emotional piece and i feel sorry for the ladies. arent they still people when their husband dies? it seems like they were only called people because of a man. in this century how can this still be happening.
thanks to you their plight has been heard and hopefully before anything else people will respect they are people and should not suffer. it also happens here only that women are becoming empowered so some cases are worse but there is hope at least as the law tries by all means to protect widows.

we may be powerless to stop an injustice but let there never be a time we fail to protest.
regards
pela

Mukut's picture

Thank you

Thank you for the lovely comments and support. The situation is grim in our country right now. I have little faith in the justice system and my people.

But, I shall never fail to protest.

Thank you for writing in.

Love,

Mukut Ray

anab87j9's picture

WOW!!

The social stigma attached to her status is so great that it "de-sexes" her, and she quickly goes from being referred to as “she” to the impersonal "it".

Not only that but it dehumanizes her!!

Although reading the accounts of these widows was very painful, I am in awe and feeling inspired by their stories of courage and how they have not lost the will to move on. In Sudan, women are socially vulnerable and scrutinized when their husband dies too.

I congratulate you for such an amazing piece, and I can't wait to hear more about the struggles of Indian women through your resonant voice. Keep it up!! It is not over yet!

XOXOXOXOXOXO

Anab

Mukut's picture

Wonderful comments

Anab, you are too sweet. Thank you for taking time out and writing in. Appreciate your support and even I am looking forward to hear your stories as well.

Lots of love,

Mukut Ray

Sutanuka Banerjee's picture

well done

Though I am very well aware about the pitiable condition of widows and the maltreatment faced by them, very little has been done in this regard; No man is required to do so if his wife dies and it shows how differently we are trained. He will be encouraged to get married again; The problem in our society is that a woman is always defined by her marital status, a spinster, married lady or a widow but it hardly matters for the boy whether he is married or not. Not being married is an advantage for him and the bachelors' party which boys usually arrange before marriage is humorously known as "the very last day of freedom" before he is sacrificed on the altar (bolir pantha). But I am yet to hear any girl uttering such sentiments even though she is traditionally the one who starts to adjust in a new circumstances and it is socially expected that she will go through every trial as a good Indian lady. Alas!

I live in my convoluted mind....

Mukut's picture

I can understand

I completely understand your convoluted mind Sutanuka. I could go on and on about the plight of women in my country but I have only limited space I feel. The current situation is so grim. Everyday a new rape, molestation, murder and what do we do: candlelight vigils, slogans, that's it. Time for some concrete action, both by government and people.

Thank you for writing in with your feedback.

lots of love,

Mukut Ray

Maura Bogue's picture

Great article

You balance the personal stories and the facts of the issue well, giving us a good insight both into the individual fates but also the bigger picture of the issue. You mention some possible solutions in the end, but maybe you could elaborate on how to change the social stigma widows experience to make your article more solutions-based.

Mukut's picture

Thank you so much

Thank you so much Maura ! The stigma attached to widows remains a huge social/cultural problem, which will take some time to go. We are raised with the mindset that girls are less, a burden-both economically and socially. Therefore, when a woman loses her husband, this belief is reiterated that now she is nothing more than a liability for the family, hence she is ostracized. Therefore I believe that education of girls is utmost important so that widowed or married, they do not have to become a burden anymore on their families and can exercise and control their rights.

Thank you again for taking the time out to read my article. Appreciate your feedback.

Lots of love,

Mukut Ray

Mukut, your article was so heart rending, despite being an unmarried woman i could actually imagine the pain that the widows in your country go through. Their were parts of similarities between people of your country and my country Kenya-for instance widowed women struggling for land especially those acquired when married. I hope that the plight of widowed women will be put in the centre of policy making decisions in your country for the effective change to take place. But most importantly the view of society about women in your country shall greatly improve. Keep on the great work of writing wonderful articles.

Mary
skype:maryitush

Mukut's picture

Dearest Mary

I feel so honored to receive feedback from such a fantastic journalist. Thank you so much for your kind,encouraging words. The apathy and ill-treatment shown towards widows is extremely sad. When my grandmother became a widow, she only wore white sarees - the traditional attire for widows, for rest of her lives. She did not touch non-vegetarian food and mostly spent her time in temples, singing hymns. And to consider, that she was the Principal of a public school. Hence, this warped attitude towards them is prevalent across all sections of society.

However,in modern times, with more women being educated and economically independent, even a widow is now open to wider options and slowly the taboo is fading.

I hope through sharing and writing about them, we can improve the situation and change the mindset.
Thank you again so much for writing in !

Love,

Mukut Ray

SSD's picture

Brilliant

A very insightful post, indeed !
Continue lighting paths....

Wendyiscalm's picture

Have reread your article. You

Have reread your article. You know how when you read something a second or even a third time how you pick up things you didn't notice the first time. Well, this time I was acutely aware of how with words you are able to paint a picture/visual of what you are trying to convey. For me this always has more potency than just a report. Wonderful talent. Wonderful work.

Ubuntu,

Wendy

Wendy Stebbins
Founder/CEO
I AM ONE IN A MILLION Non-Profit Organization focused on helping street orphans and vulnerable children in Livingstone, Zambia Africa.

SanPatagonia's picture

Spanish translation | En Español!

Viudas de India: Una historia de dobles infortunios
por Mukut

Siempre me estremezco ante la idea de que algún día podrían llamarme “Dakin”, lo que significa “bruja” en Hindi. Nunca olvidaré la tarde en la que mi mejor amiga del colegio me contó por qué su madre y ella habían decidido mudarse de su pueblo natal en Bengala Occidental a la pequeña ciudad de Jamshedpur.

Su madre, Ratna, tenía 25 años de edad cuando quedó viuda. Su marido había muerto luego de una prolongada enfermedad. Cuando estaba vivo, estaban bastante bien económicamente ya que su marido era propietario de una cantidad considerable de tierras y una tienda. Pero apenas falleció, el pueblo la rechazó y la llamaba “come-maridos”! Ella contaba que su familia abusaba de ella y hasta la golpeaban si pedía comida. Con el tiempo le dijeron que debería dejar el pueblo con su hija, una sugerencia que siguió, ya que era obvio para ella para ese entonces que era la mejor opción que tenía. Y así fue que llegó a la ciudad cercana de Jámshedpur y comenzó una vida de cero con lo poco que le quedaba.

La viudez en India es considerada una maldición, una aberración y un infortunio de proporciones nefastas. “Dakin”, “Come-maridos” y “Randi” (prostituta) son solo algunas de las palabras utilizadas para describir a una viuda. El estigma social que conlleva su estatus es tan grande que la “desexualiza”, y rápidamente pasa de ser mencionada como “ella” al impersonal “eso”.

Una mujer que ha enfrentado el ostracismo extremo es Bimala Kumar. Conocí a Bimala en nuestra organización llamada Deoraj, que trabaja sin descanso para poner sonrisas en los rostros de los menos privilegiados. Ella había venido para averiguar sobre entrega gratuita de libros para su hija de 14 años de edad. Envuelta en un sari desteñido, se veía fatigada y débil, su dolor reflejado en cientos de arrugas profundas en su cara. Bimala ha vivido en Delhi por casi 15 años. La vida no fue fácil para Bimala aún siendo adolescente, cuando fue entregada en matrimonio a un obrero que casi la doblaba en edad. “Mi marido murió cuando yo tenía 18”, susurra Bimala, ahora de 33. Se le hace difícil expresarse, y sus oraciones sin terminar son un testimonio del trauma que sufrió a manos de los hombres de su pueblo cuando su marido murió. “Cinco hombres me encerraron en una habitación y me golpearon hasta que quedé inconsciente”, recuerda Bimala. “Antes de que comenzaran las golpizas, casi el pueblo entero de alrededor de 3.000 personas se había reunido alrededor de mi casa para ser testigo de la lluvia de abuso verbal, pero ni uno levantó un dedo para detener a esos hombres”. Quebrada, Bimala tuvo que ceder su tierra y dejar el pueblo al día siguiente para encontrar un lugar cercano en una zona decrépita y de barrios bajos de Delhi llamada Colonia Krishna. La angustia de ser marcada como una “bruja” y el hecho de haber enfrentado un tratamiento deshumanizante fueron difíciles de superar, pero Bimala se negó a rendirse. “Quería ser una sobreviviente, no una víctima”, dice. Ahora se gana la vida trabajando como mucama. Ella dice: “La alegría de encontrar mi identidad y convertirme en autosuficiente ha sido mi recompensa”. A pesar de que aún extraña su pueblo, Bimala no planea regresar allí. Nunca.

Hay más de 40 millones de viudas en India – casi el 10 por ciento de la población femenina del país. Según el artículo “Mujeres 2000 – promoviendo metas para el progreso de las mujeres” de Naciones Unidas: “Las viudas están dolorosamente ausentes de las estadísticas de muchos países en vías de desarrollo y en rara ocasión son mencionadas en la multitud de informes sobre pobreza, desarrollo, salud o derechos humanos de las mujeres publicados en los últimos 25 años. Debido a la creencia persistente de que la viudez es en su mayoría un “tema de mujeres” antes que un tema social, tenemos limitados recursos y asociaciones trabajando para ayudarlas”. Este artículo enfatiza el hecho de que los sujetos de la viudez y los intentos para terminar con la discriminación contra ellos es especialmente importante en los países en vías de desarrollo como India, donde la información estadística sobre ellos es limitada.

Para la mayoría de las viudas en India, la vida es aún lo que algunos han descripto como un “sati viviente”, una referencia a la práctica ahora ilegal de quemar viudas. De acuerdo a los textos sagrados de 2.000 años de antigüedad de Manu, el progenitor hindú de la humanidad: “Una esposa virtuosa es aquella que luego de la muerte de su marido permanece constantemente casta y alcanza el cielo a pesar de no tener ningún hijo”. Muchas viudas, ya sean jóvenes o viejas, parecen haber internalizado estos rituales milenarios, muy raramente preguntándose a sí mismas o a otros si son racionales – o justos. Las mujeres viudas dejan sus saris coloridos, joyas, siguen una dieta restrictiva y hasta se afeitan las cabezas, subyugándose a sí mismas al estereotipado de la sociedad, que siempre espera que ellas sean un cierto tipo de persona. No se espera que sean felices sin su esposo a su lado, o sean parte de ninguna ocasión afortunada en un hogar.

Meera Khanna, administradora de la sede en Nueva Delhi de la Iniciativa para la Paz de las Mujeres en el Sur de Asia y colaboradora en un libro llamado “Muerta en Vida: el Trauma de la Viudez en India”, escribe: “La viuda es “afeada” para privarla del núcleo de su femineidad. Es un acto simbólico de castración. Se la priva del punto rojo entre sus cejas que proclama su energía sexual.”

Las viudas son consideradas una carga económica y social en la sociedad India. Mientras algunas son relegadas a una vida de aislamiento en sus propias moradas, otras son desalojadas ya sea por sus propias familias o por sus familias políticas, quienes quieren evitar que ellas hereden dinero o propiedades.

Vrindavan, el pueblo sacro del Señor Krishna y Radha en el distrito de Mathurá de Uttar Pradesh, es ahora el hogar de más de 6.000 viudas. Conocida como la “ciudad de las viudas”, esta localidad está atestada de mujeres jóvenes y viejas cuyos maridos han muerto, especialmente provenientes de Bengal. Algunas han venido aquí con la intención de dedicar los años que restan de sus vidas al servicio del Señor Krishna. Muchas otras vinieron para escapar de la brutalidad que enfrentaban en sus hogares, mientras que otras han sido echadas por sus hijos, que ya no las querían cerca de ellos. Los templos de la zona las contratan para cantar himnos religiosos durante tres o cuatro horas por día, por lo cual se les paga la mísera suma de dos rupias (alrededor de cuatro centavos) junto con un cuarto de dal (lentejas) y un bol de arroz.

“Las viudas no tiene muchos derechos sociales en la familia”, dice Ranjana Kumari del Centro de Investigación Social, un grupo que trabaja para empoderar mujeres. La situación es aún más extrema en algunas comunidades rurales de India. “Allí hay mucha más tradición arcaica; en áreas urbanas hay más oportunidades y posibilidades de vivir una vida normal”. Las muchas viudas que no poseen ningún tipo de identificación oficial no pueden obtener beneficios estatales para los cuales teóricamente califican. Alrededor del 28 por ciento de las viudas en India califican para pensiones, pero de ese número, menos del 11 por ciento recibe de hecho el pago al que tienen derecho. En Vrindavan, muchas viudas, especialmente las jóvenes, terminan como prostitutas o son sexualmente explotadas por los líderes de los ashrams (N. de T.: lugares de meditación) donde viven.

Una mujer, viuda ella, ha sido una líder de la causa de las viudas en Vrindavan en la última década. La Dra. V. Mohini Giri es una activista social, investigadora y líder del movimiento de las mujeres. Su madre enviudó cuando Giri tenía 9 años y, a pesar de que era todavía muy pequeña, vio con claridad la lucha que eso representó. Giri luego perdió a su marido cuando tenía 50 y fue sometida a la misma experiencia humillante. Hasta se le pidió en una ocasión no asistir a bodas porque su presencia era considerada de mala suerte.

“Generalmente todas las viudas son excluidas”, dice. “Una mujer educada puede tener dinero e independencia, pero aún eso le es arrebatado cuando se convierte en una viuda. Vivimos en una sociedad patriarcal. Los hombres dicen que culturalmente como viuda no puedes hacer nada: no puedes dejar crecer tu cabello, no debieras lucir hermosa”.

Agrega: “no somos las mujeres las que necesitamos cambiar: es la mentalidad de la sociedad”. Giri ha creado con éxito y dedicado un hogar a las viudas más ancianas de Vrindavan llamado “Ma Dham”. Hasta ahora ha cuidado de más de 500 viudas. Otro refugio comandado por Giri se llama “Amar Bari” –que significa “mi casa” en Bengalí. Se ha convertido en un verdadero hogar para muchas viudas Indias, que disfrutan de la libertad de dejar crecer largo su cabello y descartar los saris blancos tradicionales con los cuales la sociedad las obliga a vestir tras la muerte de sus esposos.

A pesar de su perseverancia y éxito, ella dice: “la mía es apenas una gota en el océano”.

Sin embargo, la viudez no es un castigo y no debiera llevar a la “muerte social”. Una viuda es primero y ante todo un ser humano, y su estado civil no puede ser un criterio para determinar su independencia o posición en la sociedad. ¿Por qué debiéramos buscar apaciguar una tradición patriarcal que estipula que es necesaria una presencia masculina para reafirmar el lugar de una mujer en nuestra sociedad y, por ponerlo simple, su existencia? Es difícil imaginar la adversidad que las mujeres tienen que sufrir cuando sus esposos han muerto. Pero no es menos trágico que tu familia te arroje fuera de sus casas o que la gente te etiquete como una bruja, -solo porque ya no tienes a alguien a quien llamar tu esposo. Es estremecedor siquiera imaginar a cualquier madre sola en una ciudad extraña, pidiendo limosnas o recurriendo a cualquier medida extrema para ganarse la vida.

India, que es con frecuencia proyectada hacia el mundo exterior como una sociedad tolerante y multicultural, en realidad continúa siendo un país altamente discriminatorio. La discriminación comienza en el hogar a una edad temprana. A las mujeres se las hace conscientes constantemente de su mérito y valor simplemente en función de ser la esposa de alguien. Aún palabras tales como “inútil”, “maldita” o “adversa”, usadas para describir a las viudas, no invocan sino un sentimiento de lástima vacía por ellas.

Pero las viudas no necesitan de nuestra lástima. En lugar de ello, como una sociedad consciente, debiéramos enfocarnos en ayudarlas a vivir sus propias vidas y cumplir sus propias metas. Como Bimala, hay muchas otras, tratando de encontrar un modo de ganar un ingreso decente y llevar una vida digna.

Facilitar el acceso a derechos a la propiedad, aumentar las pensiones gubernamentales, ampliar las opciones para que las viudas se vuelvan a casar y establecer mayores oportunidades de empleo remunerado son solo algunas de las medidas que debieran tomarse para ayudar a uno de los sectores más descuidados de nuestra sociedad. Pero cuando pienso en viudas como Bimala y luego en las otras mujeres que conozco, es claro que la actitud social negativa hacia las viudas es apenas un reflejo de la actitud general hacia todas las mujeres. Si las condiciones para los viudos hubiera sido tan adversas como para esas viudas, es probable que las personas cuyas esposas hubieran muerto hubieran atraído mucho más apoyo y atención.

Aún más importante para las viudas de India, más allá de eso, es ponerle un freno a la práctica actual de aislamiento y alienación. Ninguna mujer debiera enfrentar lo que Bimala y muchas otras mujeres como ella han soportado tras las muertes de sus esposos. Ellas deben ser aceptadas por lo que son: una valiosa parte de nuestra sociedad. La dignidad y el respeto por uno mismo son vitales para superar cualquier tipo de angustia, emocional o física. Y eso por ello que necesitamos asumir la responsabilidad de hacerles sentir que no están solas. Son parte de nosotros. Tanto como cualquier otro ser humano.

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