The Unwanted Widows of India
Dear friends around the world,
We are very honoured to have been given this opportunity to write on His Eminence the 25th Tsem Rinpoche’s blog. We wanted to get this information out to create more awareness on basic human rights that are denied to ‘minorities’ within society, such as widows. We wanted to educate others that minorities are humans too and just like us, they are worthy of respect and kindness. In particular, we wanted to highlight the works of Dr Pathak who is doing a great job in assisting people in need. We hope that more people will recognise his works and contribute in any way possible to help him accomplish such a great mission.
According to some parts of the Hindu tradition, women are required to take part in the sati or suttee practice when their husband passes away. This tradition was commonly practised in ancient India and it was not until 1829 that British officials outlawed the practice within their territories. The following decades saw the introduction of similar laws by authorities in the princely states of India. In 1861, the general ban towards the sati practice for the whole of India was issued by Queen Victoria. The sati practice was banned in Nepal in the 1920s.
What is Sati?
Sati is the practice among some Hindu communities where recently widowed women – whether voluntarily, by use of force, or coercion – commit suicide after the death of their husbands. The most practised form of sati is when the woman burns herself to death on her husband’s funeral pyre. Other forms of sati include being buried alive with her husband’s corpse or drowning.
The term sati is derived from the name of the goddess Sati, also known as Dakshayani, who self-immolated because she was not able to stomach her father Daksha’s humiliation towards her (living) husband Shiva.
The practice of sati was found among many castes and at every social level. This included both women who were uneducated, as well as the highest-ranking and highly educated women of the time. Sati was considered the highest expression of wifely devotion to their deceased husband. The act of sati was also viewed as a way for widows to purge their sins, releasing them from the karmic circle of birth and death. It was seen as a way to salvation for the dead husband and seven generations of their offspring.
Another factor behind the sati practice was the ownership of wealth and property. Upon her husband’s death, all possessions of the widow would be transferred to his family, leaving the widow impoverished. In fact, the alternative way that widows were supposed to live after their husbands died was that of a chaste lady. This meant leading a life of asceticism, renouncing all social activities, shaving her head, eating only boiled rice and sleeping on coarse matting (recorded by Moore, 2004). It is because of this lifestyle that many widows chose death in the past.
In 1987, the Indian Government passed the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act. As outlined in Part I, Section 2(c) sati is defined as,
The burning or burying alive of:
- Any widow along with the body of her deceased husband or any other relative or with any article, object or thing associated with the husband or such relative; or
- Any woman along with the body of any of her relatives, irrespective of whether such burning or burying is claimed to be voluntary on the part of the widow or the women or otherwise.
With the Prevention of Sati Act, any form of support, glorification or attempt to commit sati was made illegal. Supporting the practice of sati, which includes coercing or forcing someone to commit sati, can be punished by the death sentence or life imprisonment. For those who glorify sati, this is punishable with one to seven years in prison.
Why Do Widows Leave Their Families?
Shunned by society after their husbands die, widows are seen as a financial drain on their families. Hence many widows leave and end up living as the poorest of the poor not because of religious reasons, but because of tradition.
After their husbands’ deaths, widows are not allowed to remarry no matter their age and they are not allowed to wear jewelry. They are forced to shave their heads and to wear white clothes until their death. In some areas of India, widows are allowed to keep their hair and dress in coloured saris but this is more an exception than the rule; in most communities in India, widows are not allowed to do this. Thus after the passing of their husbands, the widows no longer have the life they wished for.
Due to the constant struggle these women face, many run away to the holy city of Vrindavan, a popular Hindu pilgrimage place. Also known as the ‘City of Widows’, the widows go to Vrindavan in the hopes that death will free them from all the emotional and physical suffering they face.
Without education or any skills that would make them employable, the widows beg for alms, or singing religious hymns and chants. Through this method, the widows can earn around USD0.15 (approx. INR10) and a hot meal. Some of the younger and more attractive women are sold into prostitution. In this City of Widows with more than 4,000 temples, no one goes hungry. Locals and pilgrims offer food and money to the widows to gain merits for their spiritual paths. They do however, have to ration the food they receive and though a lucky few have very rundown rented accommodation, most are forced to seek shelter wherever they can. Space in shelters and government-run care homes is limited, so most women are forced to sleep in the streets.
Due to the incorrect projections people have about widows, these women suffer neglect and are looked down upon for the rest of their lives. Moved by the plight of these widows, organisations have formed with the aim to uplift and improve the lives of these women. These human rights organisations play a very important role in changing the lives of widows by giving them hope to live on.
The Importance of Human Rights Organisations
Human rights organisations play an extremely important role in society, especially for the forgotten, abandoned and disenfranchised sectors and communities. Because of their inability to speak out about the ongoing denial of their basic human rights, it is easy for society to forget about them and to somehow assume that these ‘minorities’ are worthless. It is in these situations that human rights organisations are needed to protect and assist the powerless to get back on their own two feet. One such organisation working for the welfare of India’s widows is the Sulabh International Social Service Organisation.
Sulabh International Social Service Organisation
This is a non-profit voluntary social organisation founded in 1970 by Dr Bindeshwar Pathak. It was founded on the Gandhian ideals of the emancipation of scavengers (a class of people traditionally considered in Indian society to be unclean and were used to carry human waste). This organisation has been working very hard to eliminate the social prejudice against human scavenger class.
Dr Bindeshwar Pathak
Name: Br. Bindeshwar Pathak
Date of Birth: April 2, 1943
Place of Birth: Rampur Baghel, District Vaishali, Bihar, India
- M.A in Sociology
- M.A in English
- Ph.D. on “Liberation of Scavengers through Low Cost Sanitation”, from Patna University
- Patna, Bihar. R.Litt on “Eradication of Scavenging and Environmental Sanitation in India- a Sociology Study”, from Patna University, Patna, Bihar.
Dr Pathak is an influential humanist and social reformer of contemporary India. His compassion has driven him to stand up for the neglected minority. A social reformer who has benefited millions of lives, Dr Pathak is an internationally-renowned expert on sanitation. He developed low-cost toilet technology, a two-pit pour flush toilet popularly known as the Sulabh Shauchalaya System. His contributions are widely known in the areas of poverty alleviation and integrated rehabilitation programme for the much needed people in India.
Widows of Varanasi
Sulabh International has adopted hundreds of widows in Varanasi. In Varanasi, widows live scattered in private residences as well as in different Ashrams. In order to survive, many of them have to beg on the streets to support themselves. As such, Dr Pathak vowed to go out his way to help these neglected women.
Following the deaths of their husbands, widows face humiliation and degradation from their families and society which often treats widowhood as something inauspicious. Seeing the sufferings of these widows, DrPathak said that his primary concern is to change the mindset, attitude and behaviour of the people towards widows.
“In our country, there are millions of such unfortunate women who lose their husbands untimely, and become widows. Most of them are old, infirm, disabled and have no source of livelihood. Their position becomes miserable if they have dependent children. When a widow does not have any permanent source of income or livelihood, she is driven out of her in-law’s home or even from her parental home. Many such widows can be seen begging in the streets and public places. They are termed as witches and tortured even by their own kith and kin and others. They are treated as bad and unholy women by the society”.
“Ours is a welfare State. It is the foremost duty of the State to initiate welfare measures, protect them and provide maintenance to them so that they can live with dignity and honour”.
How to Donate
To find out more on how to make donations, please submit your inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Address in Delhi:
Founder, Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement Sulabh Bhawan, Mahavir Enclave Palam Dabri Road, New Delhi 110045.
+91-11-25031518 & 25031519, 25057748
Sources of Information:
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- A Mighty Girl
- A Kind Woman
- A Mighty Girl
- A Real Compassionate Idea!
- Do Not Miss: Malala Yousafzai
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