Violence against Widows in India
By Rasika Sundaram
Image: Reuters/Aninditi Mukherjee [Widows in Vrindavan, India, break a generations-old tradition and enjoy playing with colour during Holi]
India is home to nearly 55 million widows today, a number comparable to the population of Tanzania and South Africa combined (Verma, 2020). Regrettably, Indian society embraces patriarchal socio-cultural norms for widows, shackling these women to a cursed half-life (Semuwal, 2012). Accounts that establish social mores addressing widows can be traced back to the Vedic period (ancient India) where a widow was allowed to choose her path after the demise of her husband. Her options included freely joining her husband in the funeral pyre (Sahamaranathat), leading a life of rigid sexual abstention, remarriage, or voluntarily bearing and parenting the child of another man (Niyog) (Verma, 2020). In fact, ancient scriptures like the Rig Veda account for societies view of marriage as a sacrament that must not be suspended at any given point in time; hence, practices like widow remarriage and Niyog were encouraged. Nevertheless, a widowed woman was at liberty to select her way of life without being questioned (Bhaduri, 1984)
With the onset of the later Vedic age (medieval India), women’s rights drastically reduced as the region began to follow the ‘Manusmriti’, an age-old text that dictated laws for men and women. Dressed in white with her head shaved to avoid attention from men, a widowed mother during this period was forced to lead a celibate life (Verma, 2020). However, if a widow had no surviving children, she was compelled by society to follow Sati, a ritual that forced a widow to sacrifice herself by sitting on the funeral pyre with her deceased husband (Sati, 2021; Jain, 2018).
During British rule, many Indian reformists like Raja Rammohan Roy stood at the vanguard to fight for widows’ rights, particularly the outlawing of Sati (Raina, 2018). This led to the introduction of the Bengal Sati Regulation Act (1829) which declared the practice of Sati as a punishable offence and the establishment of the Widow Remarriage Act (1856) (Sati, 2021; Verma, 2020). Although the Widow Remarriage Act (1856) was an effort taken to prevent the practice of Sati, it failed to change societal attitudes towards widows as they continued to lead a forced austere life devoid of pleasures. In fact, periodic occurrences of Sati continue to exist today (Dasgupta, 2017). Widows in modern day India continue to endure socio-economic and psychological harm despite governmental and organizational efforts to eradicate discrimination and increase enfranchisement for this vulnerable group (Kapur, 2018).
The current scenario for widows in India:
Many continue to hold myths and stigmas against widows. Sometimes, widows are believed to be witches who have dark supernatural powers. On other occasions, they are accused of having committed a grave sin in their previous birth for which they are punished with widowhood. From time to time they are questioned of having illicit affairs with men and every now and then they are suspected of murdering their husband to attain his property and wealth. Ultimately, widows are viewed as inauspicious by society (Kapur, 2018; Dasgupta, 2017).
Here the question arises: What purpose do these myths and stigmas serve? The answer to this lies in societies norms concerning women’s sexuality. In a patriarchal society, an unwed woman is regarded as a temporary member of her biological family. Once she is married, a woman is expected to relinquish the position of a daughter and her primary role turns to caregiving and faithfulness towards her husband and children. Once she becomes a widow, a woman is viewed as being free of all control from her husband and is not bound by marital ties any longer. This places her in a nonconforming social position of being unrestrained and is observed as a danger to society’s stability. In communities where female liberation and self-sufficiency are frowned upon, a woman is forced to obey social expectations of being a good wife to her deceased husband (Young, 2006). To conform to the idea of being a “good wife”, a widow is compelled to hone characteristics like purity, honesty, and fidelity as these traits are valued in society. These concepts have been habituated into societies mentality and is proliferated through myths and stigmas (Jayan & Sankaranarayanan, 2017).
As these beliefs are rooted deeply in the Indian mindset, many dictate socio-cultural norms for widows to adhere to. Families and social groups with a traditional outlook force widows to shave their heads and avoid colourful dresses and ornaments. Dietary restrictions are imposed comprising two meals per day with only certain types of vegetarian food, consequently increasing mortality rates for widows. Widows must abstain from sluggishness and slumber during the day and sleep only on a mat at night-time. Avoiding negative emotions like anger is a must and practicing purity, morality, and honesty while being in service of god is their duty. They are forbidden from celebrating or participating in any festival or public gathering (Kapur, 2018; Dasgupta, 2017).
In many instances, widows lose their inheritance rights and experience property disputes, causing them to be driven away by their unsupportive families (Dasgupta, 2017). Those who belong to socio- economic marginalized communities struggle to meet financial requirements to support themselves and their young children (Kapur, 2018). In due course they find their way to holy cities where they spend their lives as ascetics. These women find shelter in ashrams that are unhygienic and turn towards begging for survival. They also face a heightened risk of being murdered or sold into prostitution (Verma, 2020; Dasgupta, 2017). Children who accompany their widowed mothers are deficient of basic needs including nutritious food and education. Female children are at an increased danger of being abused or forcefully married at a very young age to older men as their mothers cannot provide for them. Inevitably, these girls become widows at an early age and are forced to practice the same customs all over again (Kapur, 2018; Dasgupta, 2017).
A widow not only deals with the loss of her husband but also faces numerous physical and socio-economical hardships that can cause psychological trauma. These women are susceptible to depression, anxiety, loneliness, helplessness, and loss of self worth and confidence. Accepting societal stigmas and norms against them can produce a submissive and withdrawn state of mind (Dasgupta, 2017).
Governmental laws and policies for widows:
The Indian government has introduced laws and policies to eliminate the inequity faced by widows and increase equality for this group. The Hindu Succession Act (1956) acknowledges the right of a widow to willingly remarry and also allows her the right to inherit her deceased husband’s property (Ul Kubra, n.d.) The Indira Gandhi National Widow Pension Scheme (IGNWPS) grants widows aged 40-79, categorized below the poverty line with 300 rupees per month (Schemes for Welfare of Women, 2020; National Social Assistance Scheme, 2020).
However, this welfare scheme fails to recognize widows below the age of 40 who are poverty stricken and struggle to make ends meet. Although the government has recognised the financial rights and needs of widows, it is also important to acknowledge the baseless societal stigmas, myths, and patriarchal attitudes towards these women. Several widows face harsh discrimination everyday because of these attitudes and the first step to eradicate these injustices is through education and awareness.
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Verma, S. (2020, September 28). Widowhood in India. https://www.probono-india.in/blog-detail.php?id=172
Young, K. (2006). Widows without rights: Challenging marginilisation and dispossession. Gender and Development, 4(2), 199-209. Retrieved from https://policy-practice.oxfam.org/resources/widows-without-rights-challenging-marginalisation-and-dispossession-131614/