To become a widow is to experience profound personal tragedy. Tragically, for many of Indian widows, the pain of such a loss and the grief that ensues lays the foundation for continued hardship – for a life marked by stigmatisation, dehumanisation, loneliness, and despair.
There are at least 55 million widows in India, probably more. That is around the same as the entire population of countries like South Africa and Tanzania, more than all the people in South Korea or Myanmar. Also, There are an estimated 258 million widows around the world, and nearly one in ten live in extreme poverty.
Widows are accused of being witches and “man eaters”, made to drink the bathwater of their husbands’ dead bodies and have unprotected sex to “cleanse themselves of the sin of causing their husbands’ death” — just a few of the many atrocities committed on them (even in 21st century).
June 23rd marks International Widows’ Day. The observance of International Widows’ Day presents “an opportunity for action towards achieving full rights and recognition for widows.” It is a United Nations ratified day of action to address the poverty and injustice faced by millions of widows and their dependents in many countries.
In 2015, the proportion of widows worldwide living in poverty was as high as one in seven. That year, India – with a reported 46 million widows at that time – became the country with the largest population of widows, overtaking China. Since then, the number has ostensibly increased – and may not reflect the true burden of widowhood in the country.
In India, many widows have flocked to the city of Vrindavan – a city that has become internationally recognised, by sources ranging from BBC News in the United Kingdom to The New York Times in the United States, as the nation’s “city of widows.” This inauspicious designation betrays the suffering that too often accompanies widowhood.
Nonetheless, the sociocultural bias many Indian widows endure – a reflection of the country’s manifold issues as it pertains to gender parity and sex-based bias – still incurs a devastating toll. The practice of sati – the self-immolation by a widow upon her husband’s funeral pyre – is illegal now, but multiple forms of dehumanisation still persist. Women can be denigrated as ‘it’ upon the loss of their spouse; they may be ostracised in their communities, endure restrictions about their physical appearance, sex lives and even diets, be confined to their homes or many widows are thrown out of family and homes by their children or abandoned by their in-laws.
The stigma; widows endure ought to be addressed. It is undoubtedly good that governments, NGOs, and other entities are working to support widows – but there is a broad societal need, one no less than a moral and social imperative, to end the stigma surrounding widowhood. Taking an axe to social mores that denigrate widows and affording them the respect and humanity they deserve will not be an easy task. However, for society’s sake, it must not be viewed as a task beset by insurmountable odds. Needless to say, with the changing society the patriarchal mind-set is slowly losing its relevance. Efforts made by government to bring women equally at par with men are showing its evidence. More women now participate in various spheres and this change would bring a better status for these marginalized women in the future.