It is true that self-immolation or sati upon the funeral pyre of one’s husband has been banned in India for some time but the saddening acts of shunning and abandoning widows is ever present. The number of shelters run by the government has been increasing at an alarming rate. Vrindavan, considered by Hindus to be holy, is known also as the ‘ City of Widows ‘.
It must cause such heartache to these abandoned women for their children to no longer consider them worthy or deserving of their love and respect but instead as merely a constant burden, having no social value, to be locked away in a room, starved and beaten. Forty million widows are purged from their family homes yearly. Most are illiterate; some were married shortly after birth. Public petitions and millions of dollars from rights groups and government have been invested to alleviate their suffering. Slowly the sight of garbage collectors stuffing the bodies of widows into jute bags that would be thrown into the Yamuna River disappeared from view but not from memory.
Women came from all over to this place of refuge which a 16th century Bengali social reformer had once brought widows escaping death on the burning funeral pyres of their dead husbands. They were clothed in dirty rags, injured some disfigured and crippled from the beatings they had received from the hands of sons and daughters along with their respective spouses. Once housed in the shelters opened for them, they became subject to the old established customs. They were banned from taking part in any rituals or joining in to celebrate at the festivals. It has only been since 2012 when their deplorable situation attracted the Supreme Court of India and it was ruled that the government of India must provide them food, medical care and sanitation that meets the standards of the rest of the country. They are even invited to enjoy Diwali.
Once in a while, a widow would attempt to reconcile with her family. Upon arrival at her former home, her relatives wasted no time in robbing her of her life savings which in the case of one widow amounted to $230 and then leave her to beg or die on the streets. It would sometimes happen that a stranger might pass by who with pity bought the widow a ticket to return to the ashrams of Vrindavan. It is not unusual for a widow’s child or children to lure the unsuspecting widow to an ashram ‘ in the name of god ‘ and then leave them there to live in isolation, dejected and lonely for the rest of their life. It is being said that in all the world these widows, numbering 46 million , are the most marginalized, stigmatized and neglected groups today.
A widow in India may beg, visit the temples, sing songs, learn to read but little else. She often must have her head shaved. She may not wear jewelery or dance. It is superstition which is to blame in large part for the acute poverty and subsequent ostracism that falls upon the frail shoulders of the widows. Ask them how they feel and they will tell you through their tears that being a widow is the biggest curse for a woman. It is a lifelong sentence of humiliation and struggle.
The NGO, which stands for Non-governmental organization, usually non-profit, have taken a stand for these women and their critical situation. As an original arm of action within the Charter of the United Nations they have for long been concerned when social advocacy and human rights issues on a broad scale need change. Recent improvements have resulted from their voices being heard.
Lalita a 104-year-old widow was returned to begging when left alone outside the gates of her ashram after her family had taken her home upon completing government counselling. They had changed their minds. There are 84 temples in ‘ the City of Widows’. Lalita had nothing to say about what her family had done. She asked only if she could go get a ‘ begging spot’ outside the temple. That was how the widow intended to once again survive as she had done for the previous 33 years.
Vrindavan has 6000+ widows and 84 temples. That is 84 begging spots.