A Study on Widowhood in India
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According to the 1991 census, there are 33 million widows in India, 8% of the total female population and 50% of the female population over 50 years of age. India ranks highest in the world in terms of the prevalence of widows. Among the major states, West Bengal has the highest proportion of widows (65%) followed by Karnataka (63.2%). Andhra Pradesh (63.1%), Tamil Nadu (60.3%) and Orissa (60.2%). Overall, Pondicherry has the highest proportion of widows (67.7%). On the other hand, the states with the lowest proportion of widows are Nagaland (24.5%), Sikkim (32.1%) and Haryana (36.5%). Mizoram (38.7%) and Punjab (39.5%). These figures are influenced by a range of demographic, economic, health and socio-cultural factors.
Widowhood is a universal phenomenon, although shaped by the diversity of time, culture and geographical boundaries. There are many similarities between the suffering and persecution of widows all over the world; its polarity is bound up with patriarchal assumptions and at the same time, has multiple cultural practices that mark the phenomenon of widowhood in different contexts. The United Nations estimates that there are 256 million widows worldwide. One in ten lives in extreme poverty. Most of these people have serious health, voice and resource crises. The United Nations has declared June 23, 2011 as ‘Widow’s Day’ to bring justice to their lives. In the Indian context, women make up half of its population, of which more than 30 million are elderly: 58% of the latter are widows as per the Registrar General of India (1981). It brings a number of economic and social consequences for both close family members and the community. Today, in spite of changes that treat them equal to married women, the widows are deprived of the necessities which every human being has a right to enjoy. Being a widow, she is sometimes deprived of basic comforts. She has to endure some unnatural and unreasonable restrictions which make her physical and mental suffering more severe. Older widows feel a minority status not only in Indian culture but in many cultures as well. In the Indian cultural context, the word widow or ‘vidhava’ usually refers to a woman whose husband has died and who has not remarried. The plight of the widow is truly tragic, almost inevitably, it carries with it health problems, isolation and depression in addition to lack of money, unemployment and stressful socialization, and deteriorating relationships with one’s own children and friends. In all cultures, widowhood is a crisis in a woman’s life because of economic hardship and cultural isolation. It is well known that in the Indian context, the presence and position of husband/wife in the family is still an important determinant of a woman’s dignity. In other words, a woman’s value is traditionally recognised in terms of her ‘belongingness’ towards her father, husband, son or someone else, rather than her own personal achievements, initiatives and personal merits. In recent years, however, Indian society has witnessed a more complex situation. For example, the confirmed gender exploitation has changed from the previous version of caste to a newly created caste-class-power form. So, the struggle for wealth and labour has simultaneously turned into a culturally constructed struggle for money and identity. Let us look at some important issues regarding the situation of widows in India: In India, even today, the average woman is dependent on her husband for supportive decisions and protection. She can rarely claim an independent identity, irrespective of where she works. One study found that about 78.48% of widows started working after becoming widows due to economic needs. 30.43% of rural widows have difficulty in getting employment as compared to 14.29% of urban widows because the educational attainment of the latter is better than before. According to available data, unemployment among widowed mothers is three times higher than among other women. According to the 1991 census, there are 33 million widows in India, 8% of the total female population and 50% of the female population over 50 years of age. India ranks highest in the world in terms of the prevalence of widows. Among the major states, West Bengal has the highest proportion of widows (65%) followed by Karnataka (63.2%). Andhra Pradesh (63.1%), Tamil Nadu (60.3%) and Orissa (60.2%). Overall, Pondicherry has the highest proportion of widows (67.7%). On the other hand, the states with the lowest proportion of widows are Nagaland (24.5%), Sikkim (32.1%) and Haryana (36.5%). Mizoram (38.7%) and Punjab (39.5%). These figures are influenced by a range of demographic, economic, health and socio-cultural factors. The living realities of widows in the holy cities are a relatively undiscovered field of exploration, especially from the point of view of feminist involvement with religion. The politics of widows in Vrindavan, a city in Uttar Pradesh, requires an analysis of the life history of its widows; it is called the city of widows because of their growing presence. The dynamic interplay is evident in the interrelationship between the spiritual economy of Vrindavan and the panning out of the phenomenon of Hindu widowhood in the town. Vrindavan is very important to Hindus because it is associated with a prominent Hindu deity, Krishna. Widows come to Vrindavan in search of a dignified life free from the torment of widowhood. They come under the impression that Krishna will take care of them and remove their sorrow. Vrindavan survives on two things; the temple and widows. These two entities are opposite to each other, yet one defines the other. In Vrindavan, widows form the “other.” Temples represent all things auspicious, holy, solemn, and religious. The image of the widow, on the other hand, represents evil and ill-omen. A large section of these widows are living in other religious places like Varanasi, Mathura, Hardwar, and Puri, and mobility to these religious places is a continuous process. These places are not only having a high population of widows but also accommodate many women residing in destitute conditions.
Common Problems of Widows It is generally assumed that widows in developing countries are supported by their extended families or adult sons and they are mostly older women who are taken care of by their community. At the death of their husbands, they rarely inherit their property; They are often evicted from their homes, their property is taken away and their children are taken away from them; Millions of people are therefore destitute in countries where social security and national pensions do not exist. Even when the law formally grants widows inheritance and other rights, few widows are aware of these. Widows are victims of conflict and confusion over patriarchal practices, the relationship between religious and modern law, and the exclusive relationship of local courts over family and land disputes. Widows are particularly vulnerable to violence, sexual abuse and rape. Domestic violence is especially related to the possession of property by the male relatives of their husbands. Forced traditional burial and mourning ceremonies are often insulting and harmful to widows, and often involve extreme restrictions on remarriage and personal freedom. Evictions, homelessness, illiteracy, poverty and destitution force widows and their children into the most exploitative areas of informal sector work, such as household services and assistance. Uncertainty in the lives of widows often deprives their children of education. Daughters are particularly vulnerable, and their lack of education and training often leads them to marry at a very young age and consequently, to become widows. Thousands of widows are very young. Finally, the weak position of widows is seen in the context of patriarchal institutions, the custodians and interpreters of civil and customary law being male legislators, judges, administrators, police and ancillary to traditional courts. “Living customs” and religion are similarly interpreted and applied by male village chiefs or religious leaders. After becoming a widow, most widows in rural India suffer from economic decline, social isolation and associated deprivation. They are limited to how and where they live, and what kind of social support they may receive from an inheritance, remarriage, employment and relatives and the community. The results of an intensive field survey in seven Indian states show that Indian widows continue to be very marginal people (Jean Dreze and Marty Chen, 1995). They usually receive very little support from anyone other than their own children and are extremely vulnerable to neglect even when she is with one or more of her adult sons. Moreover, their ability to engage in income-generating activities is severely limited, in part due to various patriarchal rules such as patriarchal inheritance and division of labour according to gender. As far as is known from the limited evidence available, the consequences must be serious in terms of poor health and mortality.

Possible Solutions:

  • Sensitise the government, NGOs, UN agencies and donors on the issue of widows.
  • Eradicate the poverty and illness of widows and tackle AIDS and sexual health.
  • Widows can organize themselves for joint work.
  • Bringing widows into the mainstream.
    Collect and research better information on the social and economic status of widows and the practice of inheritance.
  • Improvement through training, and successful use of modern inheritance law.
  • Helping daughters to help widowed mothers (many daughters provide practical help but they are also powerless).
  • Provide shelter and counselling for abused, frail, sick and elderly widows.
  • Provide training in income generation.
  • Access to credit and extension services, loans for small business startups, appropriate technology and other innovative projects to help widows and their children.
  • Support widows to jointly activate modern inheritance law through village councils and local courts.
  • Collect information on cruel mourning ceremonies and reform marginalized and oppressive social norms for widows.
  • Collecting data on violence and sexual abuse against widows.
  • Eliminate corruption in the pension system and allocation.
  • Methods of collecting social and economic data must be redesigned to provide better information about the living conditions of widows.
  • Law reform, social support and widow empowerment are all urgently needed, as is research and public debate at all levels.
    Without economic independence and empowerment through self-help organisations, changes in the law would have little effect. What can be done then? Widows themselves must be agents of change. Slum and refugee camps will liaise with the relevant ministries to ensure a two-way flow of information and provide the basis for much-needed research.

Widows’ concerns cannot be separated from other single women or indeed from ordinary women. Widows face special difficulties and deprivation due to restrictions imposed on their livelihood and the persistence of negative social attitudes toward them. In the context of social science research, it is appropriate to focus on widowhood as a special cause of deprivation. And, in terms of social work, it is appropriate to organize and support widows’ specific demands (e.g., pensions, property rights and other entitlements). But this does not mean that it is necessary to take steps for widows or to work with them in isolation from other women.

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