The ongoing tragedy of India’s widows

By — June 22, 2012

Widows in India have a pronoun problem. The estimated 40 million women widows in the country go from being called “she” to “it” when they lose their husbands. They become “de-sexed” creatures.

Clearly, it’s more than a problem of language, although that discrimination goes further, with epithets such as “husband eater” used against them. In the northern Indian state of Punjab, a widow is referred to as randi, which means “prostitute” in Punjabi. In this region, they usually arrange for the widow to marry her deceased husband’s brother because being owned by a man is a way to avoid being raped.

“Widowhood is a state of social death, even among the higher castes,” says Mohini Giri, a veteran activist in the fight for women’s rights who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. She is also the director of the Chennai-based social work nonprofit organization Guild for Service. “Widows are still accused of being responsible for their husband’s death, and they are expected to have a spiritual life with many restrictions which affects them both physically and psychologically.”

A widow prays in an ashram in Vrindavan. Women are often forced into prostitution by corrupt heads of such ashrams. (Sara Barerra)

Although widows today are not forced to die in ritual sati (burning themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre), they are still generally expected to mourn until the end of their lives. According to 2,000-year-old sacred texts by Manu, the Hindu progenitor of mankind: “A virtuous wife is one who after the death of her husband constantly remains chaste and reaches heaven though she has no son.”  

Whether young or old, widowed women leave behind their colorful saris, part with their jewelry, and even shave their heads, if they are in the more conservative Hindu traditions. All of this is designed so as not to encourage male sexual desire, according to Meera Khanna, a trustee of the New Delhi-based Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia, and a contributor to of a book called Living Death: Trauma of Widowhood in India.

“The widow is ‘uglified’ to deprive her of the core of her femininity,” writes Khanna. “It is an act symbolic of castration. She is deprived of the red dot between her eyebrows that proclaims her sexual energy.”  

Widows seem to follow rules based on tradition because they have internalized them. They keep doing what other widows did without asking, resigned to a kind of fate—such as placing restrictions on their own diets. Orthodox Hindus believe that onions, garlic, pickles, potatoes, and fish fuel sexual passions by stimulating the blood, but these are the same foods necessary to avoid malnutrition or even death. For India as a whole, mortality rates are 85 percent higher among widows than among married women, according to research by the Guild for Service.  

In much of Indian society—across caste and religion—a widow is often perceived by family members to be a burden and sexually threatening toward marriages.  

“My husband died when I was 18,” whispers Radha, who is now 28. She finds it difficult to express herself. Her unfinished sentences are the after-effects of sexual abuse by her family members—Radha feels she must remain silent out of fear of not being believed or of giving her family a bad name.  

Eventually, Radha tired of living in an emotional prison constructed by not only her own silence, but that of those around her. No one in her family or community would speak to her because of the bad luck she is thought to carry.  

She went to Vrindavan, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) south of New Delhi, five years ago. The “city of widows,” as it is known, is where more than 15,000 widows live in order to worship Krishna and search for spiritual salvation. Radha, unlike most widows in the city, does not live in an ashram—a spiritual center for prayer. When she arrived at Vrindavan, she found a job that earned her a few rupees a day by looking after a sadhu, a man who renounces worldly pleasures to attain enlightenment through meditation. She cleaned, prepared food for him, and bought him medicine.  

After the sadhu died, Radha inherited his small house and stayed there for her own protection—she did not want to be raped as a young widow in the streets or fields. Behind a locked door was safest.  

One day, on the way to the sacred river of Yamuna, she saw a man following her. It was the same man who had previously sent messages to her via his friends offering large sums of money, most likely for prostitution. A primary form of survival of widows in Vrindavan is prostitution, with the younger ones often forced into the sex trade and “owned” by pimps.  

The man urged Radha to come with him. She ran into a temple, repeating: “No, no, no sex!”  

Today Radha can say that she has escaped rape and even prostitution, but others have not been as lucky. In some of the ashrams in Vrindavan, the same protection that young widows seek hidden in courtyards is misshapen into sexual exploitation. The heads of some ashrams use their power to force young widows into prostitution in order to earn themselves “extra” money.  

And what happens to those who become pregnant after being raped? Khanna explains clearly: “These widows are mauled by quacks for a painfully searing abortion,” she says. “If that’s not done, then they would have an extra mouth to feed and an extra pair of hands to beg.”  

The basic precepts that allow for this constant abuse of widows have also allowed their abusers to escape punishment. Impunity for those who commit violence against widows is widespread.  

For Giri, the struggle against impunity does not mean creating new laws, but instead trying to enforce the ones that already exist that ensure women’s rights. When she was chairwoman of the government’s National Commission for Women, she came up with ways to deliver justice more readily.  

“To help widows and other women who have been raped, I would go and beg the judges: ‘Please, give me your time on Saturdays and Sundays.’ Every room in a school was changed into a courtroom. We got 400 cases to be settled at once,” Giri recalls.  

According to the Home Ministry’s National Crime Bureau of India, violence against women is the fastest-growing crime. Every 34 minutes a woman is raped, and every 43 minutes a woman is kidnapped. Forty million widows continue to be deprived of their basic dignity as a kind of atonement for some sin. It’s the punishment for being a woman and a widow in India.  

For more about Indian widows, watch "Water" (2005) by Deepa Metha and the documentary “White Rainbows” (2005) from Guild for Service.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The fifth paragraph has been clarified to reflect that Meera Khanna is a trustee of the Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia and a contributor to Living Death: Trauma of Widowhood in India.

Sara Barrera is a graduate in journalism at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, with a master’s degree in television entertainment at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya. She combines her job as a radio presenter in COMRàdio with her Indian cultural studies. She is also a reporter for the TV program “Fins Diumenge.” Her publications range from a book titled Bollywood to several nationally published articles about Indian anthropology. She starred in the documentary Camino a Bollywood, which was the first of its kind to show the Indian cinematographic industry in Spain. You can find her on Twitter at @S_aridevi.

Eva Corbacho is a graduate in journalism at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, with a master’s degree in advanced journalism at the Universitat Ramon Llull. She began her professional career as a news producer for the national channel Telecinco and Barcelona radio station COMRàdio. Her work entails giving space to women to speak about occupations in which they are underrepresented. You can find her on Twitter at @ECorbacho.