Strong and dynamic, 68 year-old Sarita Devi (name changed) has been widowed for a few years now, and has been living in Vrindavan ever since. Soon after she lost her husband, she decided to live in the ‘City of Widows’ – Vrindavan. Sarita has been staying in an ashram. Moving beyond victimhood, this strong woman has taken on the task of not only changing her life but also of the other women around her.
She is “an extra-ordinary example” said a volunteer working in the ashram, where she resides. “She is a very dignified lady, who respects others around her and helps us out as well,” added the volunteer at the ashram. Helping out in the activities and coordinating programs including skilling-development, maintaining health and hygiene and education, is what she oversees in the ashram. There are many like her, but the challenge lies in moving from “sheer survival” to “absolute empowerment”.
Widows are sensitive souls, like a wallflower. Winnie Singh, Executive Director, Maitri (a Delhi-based NGO, that works extensively with widows across India), explained, “Widows are wallflowers. They exist but cannot be seen by anyone – by families, communities, policy makers. Their status in the family or community remains the same. Only the financially empowered and educated widow holds her own, because she controls the money strings, otherwise for the poor she is a burden and for the middle income and upper middle at the best is a liability. Only a minority is valued for herself and loved and cherished by the family.”
About widows who have progressed towards empowerment, Singh said, “To be honest, in a place like Vrindavan, it is a question of survival for them. So even if they would like to dedicate themselves to better the lives of younger ones, it is a challenge for them to survive themselves. But we have a 83 year old widow, who loves to share whatever she has with others with a smile. While we try to do skill building and train them to be economically independent, they only want to engage in skill building and working on the income generation project if they are confident of the money they will generate for themselves.”
Its notable that Vrindavan seemingly has become synonymous with widows in India but why is it so? Navin Kumar Bhantoa, who also works with Maitri as well, is doing a detailed research on widows in Vrindavan, explained the reason why most of them choose Vrindavan. “Mostly when asked they say the reason is spirituality but then there are other cases when their own family shuns them after their husbands die. Primarily their focus is on survival and getting on with life,” he said.
Metaphorically left lifeless following their husband’s demise, widows in India live in deplorably unseen and unknown conditions. Mostly shunned from the society, they seek spiritual and inner peace. Their entire existence mostly after surviving the loss of their spouse is focused on restarting their life and turning it into a meaningful one. Currently India has nearly 40 million widows who are either trying to survive or start life afresh. In 2011 during a New York-based conference, the United Nations officially announced June 23 as International Widows’ Day. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon stressed, “No woman should lose her rights when she loses her husband.”
Also the Global Widows Report 2015 conducted by the Loomba Foundation cites alarming figures regarding the number of widows, India has. It indicates that India globally tops the statistic on widows, followed by China. As per the 2015 report, China and India together account for 35.2 per cent of the total number of widows worldwide.
The earlier report compiled in 2010 noted that India had 4,64,57,516 widows and was second after China with the highest estimated number of widows was China. While in 2015 the positions got interchanged with India as the country with the highest number of widows in the world at 4,64,57,516 and China with an estimated 4,45,90,560 widowed females said the new report. Meanwhile the Government of India too has actively stepped up the process of taking care of widows in India. Earlier there were huge financial cuts in the budget allocated for the schemes being run by the government for widows. Now the budgets have been restored and a new rehabilitation centre especially for widows is being constructed in Vrindavan.
Currently there are two schemes under the Ministry of Women and Child Development – Swadhar and Short Stay Home – for the welfare of widows. The main objective of both the schemes is to provide primary needs of shelter, food, clothing and medical care to the women. The schemes also provide skill training and counselling. The implementing agencies eligible for assistance are social or women and child welfare, departments of state governments, women developments corporations and voluntary organisations. Union Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Sanjay Gandhi explained, “The budget allocated for the schemes for widows has been restored. In fact we are giving a lot more money to institutions and for the first time a massive exercise to check on each institution has started. We will also be building the largest widow's home in Mathura.”
The central government facility in Vrindavan is going to be spread across nearly two and half acres, with an estimated budget of sixty crore rupees allocated for its construction. Giving details of the project, an official from the WCD Ministry told Millennium Post: “There are widows in huge numbers that come to Vrindavan each year but the conditions they are living in are pathetic. Currently there is a state government home and other private ashrams. We decided to create a large facility for these widows who inhabit the area. Since they are already there in large numbers our focus is to give them a better living habitation and facilities. The Uttar Pradesh government has given us land and will be retaining a facility for about 1,000 women. The total cost for this project is around 60 crore rupees is the cost and the land which has been allocated to us is about two and a half acres approximately. The construction for this home has already begun.”
Sulabh International too has been adopting hundreds of widows, and they have launched a campaign against ‘widowhood’ in the country. They have in fact proposed a draft Bill to be presented before the Parliament for their protection, welfare and maintenance. Sulabh founder Dr Bindeshwar Pathak stressed that the proposed bill will deal with measures to look after the welfare, protection and maintenance of the neglected, abandoned and destitute widows.
Approximately Rs 3 crore is spent annually by Sulabh International to take care of nearly thousand widows in India. Speaking to Millennium Post, Pathak said, “We have been working with widows in three places in India – Vrindavan, Varanasi and Uttrakhand. Since 2012 we have been giving Rs 2000 to widows in Vrindavan for their welfare, food and rehabilitation. We also have teachers who are teaching them English, Hindi and Bangla. We are also imparting them training to them for pursuing different vocations. We have provided ambulances in all ashrams as well. In Uttrakhand we are helping the widows who have lost their husbands during the Kedarnath floods. Annually we spend about three crore rupees on the welfare of widows in these ashrams and around 1,000 widows are being taken care by us.”
These are examples of such various efforts on a personal or private or even government level being taken by organisations, individuals and ministries, but most importantly the layman needs to recognise the existence of widows and be sensitive to the issue. They exist nearly as an invisible entity in our country, but still their presence cannot be denied by us. With even a few of these widows taking up the task of reforming their own life and then moving to make a difference in the lives of others. Even this is a colossal step towards a paradigmatic ideological shift which will eventually also change our societal mindset.