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India’s Ostracized Widows Get Second Chance

  • Aru Pande

Nearly 2,000 widows who have been abandoned by society and their families live in government shelters lacking basic amenities in India's northern city Vrindavan. The Supreme Court last year said the women should be given the resources and support they need to live their lives with dignity. One organization is trying to make that ruling a reality.

Arati Mistry had almost given up on life. Married at 16 and widowed just two years later, the now 55-year-old recalls how she could barely make ends meet.

“I used to wonder, how can I survive? I went through hardship. I used to ask for food, work in people’s homes. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I came here,” she recalled.

Mistry and nearly 900 other widows in Vrindavan are now getting a second chance, after being adopted by the Indian non-governmental organization Sulabh International.

After last year's Supreme Court ruling nothing the widow's deplorable living conditions, the court suggested that Sulabh could help out. Now the self-funded group provides food, medical care, a roughly $40 monthly stipend, schooling and vocational training for those living in the city’s government-run shelters.

Sulabh founder Bindeshwar Pathak says it’s a dramatic change for many women who were cast out of their homes by family members and ostracized by society, often left to beg near temples to survive.

“Ten months ago, they wanted to die, now they want to live longer to enjoy life, they are very happy. In that way we have brought about a change in the minds of women, because they now they get all the facilities,” he said.

Many of these widows had no way of supporting themselves and traveled from the eastern state of West Bengal to live their remaining years at Vrindavan, known as the birthplace of the Hindu god Krishna.

Although Indian society is slowly changing, for centuries widows have been seen as inauspicious and sometimes even blamed for their husband’s death. Resigned to an austere and isolated life, many are not allowed to participate in religious functions such as marriages.

But this year, for the first time in decades, these women celebrated the Hindu festival Holi. Sociology Professor Ravi Prakash Pandey says Sulabh is giving the women an opportunity to rejoin mainstream society.

“Sulabh is providing not only a financial support but also providing a radical change to eradicate the social taboos which have already been imposed by society,” he said.

Many widows like Arti Mistry say Sulabh's free health care, higher standard of living and amenities like televisions have meant dramatic changes in their lives in just a few months.

“I have so much peace. God has sent me these people for a peaceful life that even my parents could not provide for me. I am leading a new, peaceful life,” she said.

The women here say they now have a purpose and a future they never thought was possible.
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