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South Asian Widows Face Discrimination - 2002-02-03

The first ever conference on the suffering of millions of widows in South Asia has concluded in the Indian capital Sunday. The meeting was organized by non-government groups around the world.

Women in traditional South Asian societies are often discriminated and marginalized, but their plight intensifies if they become widows. Tradition imposes a strict dress code on them and forbids them from remarrying or taking part in religious ceremonies. Inheritance rights usually pass directly from father to son, leaving a widow with little or no economic security.

Mohini Giri heads an Indian non-governmental organization, the Guild of Service. She told VOA the discrimination faced by widows in South Asia is rooted in the region's male dominated society.

"It's a patriachal [society in] South Asian countries, and as patriarchy says we have no legal rights, we don't get property rights, we don't get rights on agricutlural land, we don't have rights of education, we have customs and taboos where widows are discriminated against and ostrasized in society right from the beginning," explained Ms. Giri.

In recent years many of these practices are being challenged and rejected, but they are still widely prevalent. Women activits say much of the bias against widows has no religious basis, but is part of the region's cultural heritage.

Kate Young heads a British non-governmental group called Empowering Widows in development. She says civil society must take steps to enhance the status of widows. She is also urging a dialogue with reglious leaders.

"Another area where it is important we think about talking with and discussing with some of the religious authorities about what is the basis for a lot of the treatment of widows," said Ms. Young. "Is there any basis in religion? We've heard today a lot of it is not in the Koran, it is not part of the religious observances. It is customary practice, but thought to be religious."

The conference also highlighted South Asia's new problem: the growing number of young widows in the region's several conflict zones - Sri Lanka, Kashmir and Afghanistan.

In Sri Lanka for example, a Tamil separatist insurgency has resulted in the death and disappearance of thousands of young men. Women activists say in one of the towns near the battle region, Batticaloa, a majority of the 10,000 widows are under 30 years of age.

In India's Kashmir state, the local population has been caught in the crossfire between the security forces and muslim militants waging a separatist insurgency for more than a decade. But the trauma is greater for an estimated 10,000-15,000 women widowed in the conflict. The head of the state commission for women, Girija Dhar explains.

"She carries the stigma of being a militant's widow. She is harrassed by the investigating teams. They want to pressurize her to get maximum information of the contacts of the militants. If [her husband] happens to be somebody in the armed forces or in police, she is labelled as an informer, she carries that stigma," said Ms. Dhar.

Rukshananda Naz is a social activist from Pakistan, working among women in Afghan refugee camps. She says Afghan widows in these camps face huge problems - their food registration papers are often taken away by male relatives and many are victims of sexual harrassment or trafficking.

An exception to the bleak picture is the tiny mountain kingdom of Bhutan, where widows have equal inheritance rights and face no discrimination due to tradition or religious customs.

The conference is urging governments in the region to come up with a social policy, legal remedies and safeguards for widows. They also want international bodies like the Untied Nations to consider widows as a special group among women, whose problems deserve attention.