Husband Eaters! To be a #Widow in #India
In a country, where millions of females are killed: through infanticide, feticides, dowry murders, and ‘honor’ killings, what does it mean to be a woman who has survived her husband? What does it mean to be a widow in India?
The town of Vrindavan in northern India is sometimes called the ‘city of widows’ because it houses thousands of widows who’ve moved here from all over India. Below is an excerpt from an article by Neha Dixit in which she gives a heart-wrenching account of what life is like for the widows in Vrindavan.
by Neha Dixit
Two hours from Delhi, Vrindavan is where the dark age of patriarchy is intact. Vrindavan is full of women who have been forced to follow the same practices for the sin of being “husband eaters.”
According to Bishen Vaishnav, the priest in the Banke Bihari temple, for over 150 years widows have flocked here, either of their own will, or forced by family to get sucked into a trap of two meals and devotion. [
Parvati Devi is 70. She repeats a story that could belong to any widow here: She was the eldest [of nine siblings], married off [at 12 years] to a 40-year-old man. The husband died of diarrhoea [when she was 15 years.] She became an outcast overnight. In the prime of her teens, she had yet to come to terms with puberty. “My mother-in-law blamed me. My husband died because of sexual intercourse with me during my periods. It is a sin and his death was God’s punishment.” Parvati says her husband was a “good man” but has only faint memories of how he looked. “Even a pig’s life is better than a widow’s.”
Official data suggest that 50 per cent of widows in Vrindavan have families at their places of origin. The figures are a reminder of the misogynistic customs that ostracise widows.
The six government-run and NGO shelters in Vrindavan serve a total of 800 women. The other 20,000 [widows] are left to fend for themselves.
The women who depend on Antyodaya have to survive on five rotis a day, without any other nutrition. They get no vegetable, protein, fruit or milk.
Dearth of medical treatment means lives lost to tuberculosis and pneumonia every year.
Women are also entitled to a half-yearly pension of Rs. 1,800. They haven’t received any in the last four years.
Since most women are illiterate, they seek help from the officials to complete their bank account documentation…all these years it was the officials who…were receiving all the money instead of [the widows.]
With no government aid and no income, there are often incidents of [exploitation of] surrogacy and sex work. [One young woman called Rupa says] “As a sevadasi, dependent on the ashram for staying alive, we do it, for the priest, for the donors. It is better than selling your body every single day in Gaura nagar (Vrindavan’s red-light area) and contracting AIDS!” [Another young widow hired for a surrogate child by a British couple is given half of what she’s promised and then the couple disappears with the child!]
In September 2012, it was reported that the bodies of some inmates who died in this shelter were taken away by sweepers at night, cut into pieces, put into jute bags and disposed of. This too was an act of grace, done after the inmates collected money and paid the sweeper
What is hard to understand is that these ashrams have existed for centuries and still haven’t devised a model for the widows to be independent. There have been no attempts to provide skills for gainful employment.
When I ask Uma Shankar, a member of the management about the vocational skills that are provided to the women, he says, “Uski kya zaroorat hai? Yahan sabhi parivarik mahilayein hain.” (Why is that required? All of them are domestic women.)
Some of these ashrams are also owned by corporate houses…Vrindavan is also a place to study the nuances of Corporate Social Responsibility projects which comfortably twine themselves around religious alternatives.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Neha Dixit is an award winning journalist based in New Delhi, India. She covers development, gender and conflict in South Asia and reports through multiple mediums including online print and television. For her other gender related reporting click here. She tweets at @nehadixit123
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Claude Renault is a professional photographer from Brittany (France), and is also one of the 2400 supporting member photographers of The 50 Million Missing’s Photographers’ Group on Flickr . His website is www.clauderenault.fr/
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR