With no means to survival and sustenance these women have to depend on meager government support for their survival.
Women power or ‘Nari Shakti’ in India is celebrated through different incarnations of Goddess from Durga or Sati, each depicting various form of ‘shakti’ or power that women represent, including Devi Dhumavati, the widowed form of Godess Durga. Devi Dhumavati, significantly, is associated with hardship and poverty, the two things that the widows have to face. She is an old and ugly widow, associated with inauspicious and unattractive things. She is always hungry and thirsty and is believed to initiate quarrels. Devi Dhumavati who is malnourished, thin, unhealthy with pale complexion has truly represented how widows have had to lead their lives through ages in India if they were spared from Satidaha Pratha.
Legally the country abolished ‘Satidaha Pratha’ in the year 1829 but widowhood becomes a burden still in absence of social and financial security to those women who are jobless and owns no property and are dependent on their children and relatives. Although social dogmas have reduced since, when social reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy crusaded against Sati Pratha when women were either forcefully burnt alive at the pyre of their husbands or abandoned by the families, and lead a life of destitution. Many of these widows are still marginalized, either living at the mercy of their children or relatives or on meagre government aid.
A Global Awareness Day, International Widow Day is celebrated on 23 June every year to bring light for the enhancement of the condition of the widows. World has come a long way in recognizing human rights of widows since 23 June, 1954, when Shrimati Pushpawati Loomba became a widow, at the age of 37. Her son Rajinder Paul Loomba, founded the Loomba Foundation to help widows from underdeveloped and underprivileged countries, and educate the children of widows.
In spite of the abolition of Sati Pratha, it has been a long journey to get recognition of human rights of widows. Widow marriage and abandoned widows have been a big challenge in India.
Still a long way to recognizing widow’s human rights
Traditionally, women, after widowhood either were forced to be ‘Sati’ or were pushed out of their husband’s houses, majority of them with neither pension nor the social security. Poverty compels them either to work hard, even in old age, or to take shelter in temples and ashrams.
Hence, a huge number of them traditionally move to Vrindavan or Varanasi, the holy towns, may be with the hope of a better living. These widows live in pitiable conditions, mainly depending upon the alms provided by the pilgrims and the government help. Some of them earn a little by singing hymns in the Bhajan Ashram too. Some eat in the bhandaras. Some even beg near the temples too.
Some widows are taken to Vrindavan by gurus. They live in the ashrams of those gurus and in return of the shelter they do cooking and cleaning. Those who live in the widow quarters are deprived of even the basic facilities like running water, electricity and toilets. The rooms are dingy, unhygienic. There are several others who are without shelter wander in the streets on the mercy of alms.
Religious marginalisation of widows
Although the younger generation has moved out of the age-old stereotypes against widowhood, many of these prejudices, myths and superstitions that are still prevalent, force the widows to go through many hardships.
In the state of Bengal, from where the crusade against Sati Pratha started, certain social dogmas still tend to marginalise the widows. Ambubachi is the most important festival of Kamakhya temple, celebrated in the month of June every year. It is a festival of fertility. The four-day festival is celebrated from the seventh to the tenth day of the Hindu month of Asadha. During this period, the doors of the temple are closed. It is believed that Devi Kamakhya goes through the annual cycle of menstruation in this time.
During these four days, daily worship is suspended in the Kamakhya temple, which is in Guwahati, Assam. In Bengal, the idols in the temples are covered with curtains. It is believed that widows should not see the idols during this period. They cannot even have cooked food during these days. When Ambubachi gets over on the fourth day, all the household items, utensils and clothes used by the widows during the four days are cleaned, washed and purified by sprinkling Gangajal.
Huge question marks remain. How is a festival associated with fertility, related to the widows? Why do they need to live under such restrictions?
India’s crusade for human rights to widows
Raja Ram Mohan Roy played a major role in demolishing this inhuman tradition of ‘Sati Pratha’. He went abroad for some time. After returning, he was informed that his brother had passed away and in the name of Satidaha Pratha, his sister-in-law was burnt alive with her husband. He got agitated and decided to fight against it. On 4 December, 1829, “Bengal Sati Regulation Act” was passed by Lord William Bentinck. As per the act, Satidaha Pratha was banned in India.
Another initiative towards the betterment of widows, initiated by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, was the “Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act”. The “Bengal Sati Regulation Act” surely saved the lives of the widows, but they had to face the hardships of being widows. To solve the problem of widows, especially child widows, the concept of widow remarriage came. The act was passed on 16 July, 1856. The marriage of Hindu widows was legalized.
Like many initiatives, the International Widow Day is an initiative to raise the widows from their pathetic conditions and offer them a better living. It works to encourage actions in achieving full rights for widows. The ultimate goal of this day is to empower the widows to fight against violence, discrimination and poverty.
The world has changed but it is important to acknowledge and support those women who have lost their husband and have no means to sustain and support their and their children’s lives. Government should have provisions to support such women who are in need of help so that these can lead a life of dignity.