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11 Oct, 2010 02:38

India’s widows ostracized by society, face dire conditions

Unable to remarry after their husbands’ deaths, Hindu widows are abandoned by family and society because of cultural traditions that stigmatize them as “bad luck” as well as being an unwanted financial liability.

It's a patriarchal society. And man wanted to frame it in such a way that everything is to his advantage,” said Dr. Mohini Giri, chairperson of Guild of Service. “He could remarry, do what he wanted, but he deprived women of those things.”

Bhagwat Balan feels she has nothing left to live for. As a widow, she was deserted by her extended family, who did not want to face the task of caring for her. So, she traveled to the holy city of Vrindavan, where she now spends her time reading Hindu scriptures.

I have no family now. I have to complete my life. That is all,” Ms. Baland said. “If I get food to eat that's fine, if not that's also fine.”

Shunned by society, 16,000 widows stay in Vrindavan because it is associated with the Hindu God Krishna, who these women believe they are now married to.

Hindu widows can be found throughout the city streets, with many forced to beg for scraps of food.

My husband died of cancer. I used up all our savings in paying for his treatment. Once he died, no one would look after me,” Radha Biswas said. “So I came to Vrindavan.”

The social service organization Guild of Service runs two homes for widows in the city where 180 women are housed and fed.

“Most people come to Vrindavan because they are helpless. Leaving your home is a big step. I thank God that I found a place to stay here,” said Prem Kishori Verma, who lives at one of the organization’s homes. “In the beginning, I felt alone and would cry all the time. But slowly, over time, I adjusted to my new life here.”

Organizations like the Guild of Service, which works to overcome centuries of prejudice and give widows a chance to live with dignity, may have some impact, but the larger challenge is convincing families across India's villages and towns not to abandon the women in the first place.