If You’re an Indian Widow, Your Children Could Kick You Out and Take Everything

Losing a husband in India forces many women into a life of begging and destitution, and despite the country's development little is being done to change things

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Nicky Loh / Getty Images

Women rest in their room inside an ashram shelter for widows in Vrindavan, India, on June 13, 2013

The verandah of the Bihari temple, in Radhakund, a few kilometers away from the Hindu temple town of Vrindavan, comes alive with chants and grateful ululations at 11 o’clock every morning as widows in white saris eat free meals of lentils and rice. “If not for this meal, I would go hungry most days,” says Shakti Dasi, a widow from the northeastern Indian state of Tripura.

Dasi is among the 500 women who eat at the temple kitchen, run by Delhi-based nonprofit, Maitri. Vrindavan and Radhakund are home to around 15,000 widows, most of whom were driven from their homes by family members. “In our country, when women become widows, they cease to exist,” says Winnie Singh, executive director and co-founder of Maitri. “It is a failure not only of the government but of society at large.”

Consider Dasi. The 66-year-old has been on her own for three decades, forced out years ago, she says, by her own sons. “If I asked for money, they would beat me,” she said. She eventually signed away her rights to the small grocery store she ran and set out on a one-way pilgrimage to Vrindavan. Illiterate and unskilled, Dasi, like most widows in Vrindavan and Radhakund, sings religious songs for many hours a day, earning less than a dollar, or sometimes some food. Her ankles are bruised purple-black from standing for hours during the hymns and chants.

It is striking that in the 30 years since Dasi fled, not much has changed for India’s widows. A recent report in the Wall Street Journal examined the harsh life awaiting Punita Devi, the wife of Akshay Kumar Singh, one of the man who has been sentenced to death for raping and murdering a 23-year-old paramedic intern in Delhi last December. Singh hasn’t been hung yet, but Devi’s in-laws have already refused to look after her. Her own parents say they are too poor to take her back.

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“In India widows are treated as untouchables,” says Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of Sulabh International, a Delhi-based nonprofit. Sulabh helps around a thousand widows in Vrindavan and Varanasi, giving them a monthly allowance of $31, as well as health care assistance. Sulabh is also working on a draft bill, which it hopes to table in Parliament next year. The draft suggests a monthly pension for abandoned and destitute widows and to make their eviction from either their parental or husband’s house a punishable crime. “They have to give up every thing … and live a life of isolation,” says Pathak. “That it is happening even today is a huge shame.”

There is the 2007 Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act that makes it an offense for children to abandon their parents, but many of India’s 40 million widows are not aware of their rights under it, and the act provides for only relatively mild penalties (three months jail or a fine not exceeding $100).

“Women fear exercising their rights because they do not want to be branded a bad woman, a bad mother,” says Singh. “We would love to ensure that each of these women live a dignified life, but the magnitude of the problem is depressing.”

For many, there is nothing to do but contemplate the injustice of what has happened to them, with religion of little or no comfort. “I came to Vrindavan looking for my god,” Dasi says, her voice quavering with emotion. “Instead I have become a beggar.”

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