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Indian Widows Continue to Live Desperate Life in 'City of Widows'

  • Madhur Singh

Vrindavan, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is called the "City of Widows." Upper-caste Hindu widows who are disowned by their families go there to live. Young and old spend their remaining years singing hymns in temples in exchange for food, and a small daily stipend of coins. As Madhur Singh reports from Vrindavan, despite efforts by the government and aid organizations, most of the women subsist in abysmal conditions.

Vrindavan in Northern India is one of the holiest cities of Hinduism. The deity Krishna, the philosopher-prince of ancient India, is said to have spent his childhood here. The city, with thousands of temples devoted to Krishna, attracts millions of tourists each year.

For centuries, Vrindavan has also been home to thousands of Hindu widows, mostly upper-caste women from West Bengal, who were either abandoned by their families, or are seeking refuge from greedy and cruel relatives.

An estimated 15,000 of these women are believed to be residing in Vrindavan today, and the number is increasing. Most survive by singing hymns in temples known as bhajan ashrams. In exchange for chanting six hours every day, the widows receive a little food, and the equivalent of 15 cents a day.

Some can also be seen begging on the streets, wearing white saris with their heads shaven according to custom. There have been reports that some, by choice or because of circumstances, have gone into prostitution.

Even as Indian women are making strides in the workplace, in a country where the president is a woman, the widows of Vrindavan continue to be victimized by traditions that critics call outdated and unjust.

Usha Rai, of the support group Guild of Service, is the author of the latest study about the widows for the United Nations Development Fund for Women, UNIFEM. She says not all these widows come to Vrindavan voluntarily.

"Very often the women were taken there and abandoned there by relatives saying, 'We'll come back for you,' and who never came back," said Rai.

The UNIFEM study revealed that most of Vrindavan's widows are indigent and aged, with little access to medical facilities or government pensions.

The women are expected to spend their days contemplating God, living a frugal existence, and awaiting death.

Traditionally, upper-caste Hindus have not been allowed to remarry, but widowhood remains a stigma for most Indians, especially those in rural areas and from less-educated families. Land reforms initiated by the British enabled widows to inherit property from their dead husbands, which greedy relatives sometimes try to usurp. Since the women are considered inauspicious, people will not give them respectable employment.

Activists say Vrindavan's religious institutions do little to support the women, despite reportedly being flush with funds.

Usha Rai says the temples where the widows find refuge should take practical steps to help the women and their often-destitute children.

"With the money that they get, they could open schools for the children of widows. If they could provide skills training, it will be great," Rai added.

Government and private support groups do provide care and shelter for hundreds of women. But that is a small minority of total widow population.

Anita Jatav, 37, has spent the last six years in Vrindavan.

She says that after her husband died she was ill-treated by his family, who tried to force her to marry her brother-in-law, a drunkard. So she escaped to Vrindavan, where she heard no one goes hungry. She brought her three children with her.

Jatav is a rare success story here, doing odd jobs and learning sewing and embroidery. Her children are getting schooling, in part thanks to a home run by the All India Women's Conference. The home's caretaker, Kamlesh Singh, says other widows prefer to beg rather than learn a skill.

She says donations are always pouring in to Vrindavan, so some women are now used to begging, and it is very difficult to convince them to go to rehabilitation homes. But those who are wise and value their own security, she says, go to the homes willingly.

Amar Bari, meaning "My Home," is a group facility run by another private organization. Among its residents is Ranu Mukherjee, 80, who sings a song about a king who has so many worries while the beggar has no such cares.

Mukherjee, widowed in her early 20s, has spent the last quarter century in Vrindavan. There is little doubt she will spend the rest of her life here.

Recently, the Women and Child Development Ministry announced that it will begin rehabilitating and retraining the country's 33 million widows, and try to get them remarried. But activists are skeptical, saying India has a long way to go before such women, cast aside by society, can overcome the traditional stigma of widowhood.

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