Superstitious beliefs are generally perceived in light humor, like when a black cat crosses your path, or you look into a broken mirror. But what about the ones that could cause several women to live in poverty and destitution for the rest of their lives? Unfortunately, that’s the ugly side of superstition and it does exist in several rural, underdeveloped societies of India. Societies, where it is normal to believe that apart from being a financial burden, widowed women and even their shadows, bring bad luck. Within such circles, widows – both young and old – are shunned and forced to leave their home. Their bangles are broken, red vermilion (the mark of a married woman) is wiped away from the forehead, and they’re forced to wear nothing but white saris, before being turned away from home. Thousands of these homeless widows gather at one place, Vrindavan, where it is believed that death will bring them salvation. So they go there to live in ashrams, awaiting their turn to die.
Unfortunately, life in the ashrams of the holy city of Vrindavan is not exactly a bed of roses for the lonely and abandoned women. In fact, some of them are so poor that they have even left the ashrams and taken to the streets to beg for their food. The north-Indian city, with a population of about 55,000, is believed to have about 20,000 widows today. The ones who do stay on in the ashrams receive only one small plate of food a day, and live in the poorest of conditions. Young widows face a threat to their safety as well, due to sexual abuse and human trafficking.
Photo © V.V. Krishnan
Filmmakers such as Dharan Mandrayar and Deepa Mehta have made movies on the plight of such women, but these have been viewed as highly controversial in the country. Mehta’s 2005 film, Water, depicted the story of the young and beautiful Kalyani, a widowed woman sold for sexual services. It was nominated for an Academy Award that year. However, not much has changed for real-life Kalyani’s who suffer the terrible living conditions each day.
Photo © Rajeev Bhat
A few courageous people do exist, who are working hard for a change. One of them is Dr. Mohini Giri, the creator of Guild of Service, an organization which helps destitute women and children. Widowed herself at the age of 50, she says that she has experienced the social humiliation that comes with being a widow. There were times when her presence was considered bad luck, so she was asked not to attend weddings. “We live in a patriarchal society. Men say that culturally as a widow you cannot do anything – you cannot grow your hair, you should not look beautiful. It’s the mind of the society that we need to change – not the women,” she says. Of course, she admits that her efforts have not been sufficient, and a lot more help is needed from the Government to bring about a positive change in the lives of thousands of widows. “Mine is but a drop in the bucket,” says Dr. Giri.