The truth about ostracizing widows in India

Given only three alternatives to pick from, Indian widows are often ostracized from mainstream society following the death of their husband. Read more about the truth, the history, and the pursuit to change the lives of widows that are deprived of their dignity.

widow ostracized

The condition of many widows in India — can a change really end this discrimination?

Imagine dealing with the death of your husband, the one you cherished and lived an inseparable life with. Now, think about being kicked out of your home, abandoned by family, and shunned from the society immediately following his death – all because you’re a widow. It’s hard to even fathom, right? This is the unfortunate reality of millions of widows, who live in India today.

Old religious text described widows as inauspicious, since then a big part of Indian society often thinks that a widow is cursed. Some even believe she possesses the ill fate, which led to her husband’s demise. According to Women Under Siege Project, around 40 million women are completely ostracized and abandoned by family.

According to Daily Mail, Sulabh International, a non-profit organization is taking initiative to change this situation by re-integrating widows into mainstream society. The charity will provide regular income of S$46 per month, and will allow widows to interact with neighbours to encourage a healthy life. Last year, the chairman of Sulabh International, Bindeshwar Pathak also adopted five widow homes in Vrindavan promising to help widows live a life with dignity.

But, why?
Many widows have accepted their fate without questioning this tradition, which has been carried on for centuries. Women just follow what other widows did before them; even if they wanted to rebel they would be out casted for being immoral. A woman only had three alternatives:

  • Marry your husband’s younger brother
  • Burn with your dead husband (when he is cremated)
  • Be ostracized and live a life of self-denial

The movie ‘Water’ based on the lives of Indian widows

There are many things that a widow has to consider giving up when faced with the calamity of losing a husband. These are some of the activities she is forbidden from observing or participating in:

  • Must renounce materialistic pleasure
  • Can’t marry again
  • Can’t participate in celebrations or festivities (including religious engagements)
  • Not allowed to bathe in sacred river along with pilgrims
  • Forbidden from looking attractive or adorning herself
  • Can’t wear any type of colour
  • Forbidden to keep long hair – it has to be shaved
  • Forbidden to associate with mainstream society
  • Forbidden from working

Since widows have no means to provide for themselves, they have to resort to begging for money. It has become a norm for them to travel to the holy city of Varanasi or Vrindavan, also known as the ‘city of widows’. More than 15,000 widows live in ‘ashrams’ or a spiritual centre for prayer, and earn their living through either begging or reciting prayers in the Hindu temples of Vrindavan. Many of the 40 million widows have the misfortune of also being raped or being forced into prostitution, since they spend most of their time on the streets and have no one to protect them.

Old tradition
Long time ago, it used to be compulsory for women to practice a tradition known as sati, where the widow throws her body on her husband’s burning funeral pyre to sacrifice herself. However, over a century ago, this practice was banned under the British rules for obvious reasons. Even though many Indians live in a modernized sub culture, which has no place for a tradition like this — being ostracized as a widow is still an integral part of society today.

Bringing change
Fortunately, people like Pathak and organizations like Sulabh International are working very hard to bring a change to India. Pathak has called on the country’s parliament to pass a new law ensuring the widows’ welfare by paying them a basic salary from state funds.

What do you think about the idea of women having to atone for a sin they didn’t commit?

Watch this trailer of the movie ‘Water’ to learn more about this tradition:

Photo courtesy of: rupa /