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How Does Your Country Treat Widows?

September 10, 2019
Plain English Version

Photo Credit: Rebecca Conway for The New York Times

America tends to honor widows. They have been wives, and they are often mothers and grandmothers. Their adult children take care of them when they are ill and old. Social security benefits keep them from poverty.

It is not always that way in India. Nirmala Maheshwari is like thousands of other widows exiled from their homes. Her family abused her after her husband died.

“They saw me as a burden,” she said. She had lost her social value in the eyes of her family. Her son and other relatives starved and beat her.

She traveled to Vrindavan; it is a city known for being a shelter for widows.

Nirmala Maheshwari, seated at center, at a crafts workshop Photo Credit: Rebecca Conway for The New York Times

She arrived in Vrindavan. A feeling of shock took place when she stepped into the lobby of her new home. It was the Krishna Kutir ashram. The shelter is a government-run facility with about 1,000 beds. There are free food and medicine.

Hindu brides often live with their husbands’ families. This tradition weakens ties with their own. Widowhood can spell disaster. Families purge a small number of India’s 40 million widows in their homes each year. Sometimes it is with violence.

These are India’s castaway widows. Most of them are illiterate, and some were married off as infants.

The last few years have seen big improvements in their quality of life. The public and the courts seek change. Tens of millions of dollars are going into lifting the conditions of abandoned women.

Vrindavan is a maze of narrow streets and regal, sandstone temples. All-day long, thousands of pilgrims gather to pray at the base of giant statues of deities.

Widows have come to the city since the 16th-century. A Bengali social reformer brought a group of them to escape from suttee. 

That is a practice in which Hindu widows immolated themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres. The ritual is now banned.

The widows in Vrindavan survived for many years by singing devotional songs in temples.

They got a few rupees a day. And they begged for money.

Homelessness used to be common. Some lived in doorways. When they died, garbage collectors would sometimes stuff their bodies into jute bags. They would throw them into the Yamuna River.

By The New York Times

India’s Supreme Court ruled in 2012. It said that the government must provide them food, medical care and a sanitary place to live.

New places opened. Widows arrived alone, by train, from villages hundreds of miles away. Their clothing was dirty and torn. Some came with serious injuries.

Conditions are still not good. But for those who get to Vrindavan, there is a promise of a better life.

Last month there was a religious festival. The women danced in their rooms and in corridors. They sang loud enough that their voices to reach the health clinic.

On that day, a widow looked around her new home. Its halls were filled with the laughter of women like her. She felt “absolutely free.”

Source: The New York Times August 27, 2019


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