In 2012, when her husband died of liver cirrhosis, 35-year-old Sangita’s* life instantaneously turned upside down. The income from her husband’s hosiery business was good enough to run the family, and save for the occasional emergency. His illness meant they dipped into the safety net, and unknown to her, her name was taken off from the firm her husband had been running.
“My husband’s parents got him to take off my name, and today my job in a content firm barely pays for me and my son’s schooling after stopped living with my in-laws,” says the Jorhat resident. “I approached the social justice and women and child development ministry authorities, and yet, no help has come. I don’t even know if there is any such benefit earmarked for widows like me.”
She says that her monthly salary of Rs 7,000 is too little to save for her son’s future education. Without a social security scheme to help her, Sangita has no way out.
Sangita is not alone. With over 5.6 crore widows, India has the largest number of widows globally. And along with China (over 5 crore), India accounts for one-third of the widow population.
Yet, the country does not have a specific law that benefits widows. In India’s traditionally orthodox system, women are routinely made to give up certain “pleasures”. Sangita says that when her father passed away, her mother was forbidden from eating non-vegetarian food and anything that had garlic or onions in it. She could no longer wear coloured clothes, and was made to most dress in white. Sangita says that had she lived with her in-laws, she, too would have followed the same rituals.
The dual standards are alarming in the social construct, says Dr Laxmi Gautam of Vrindavan. Dr Gautam, a Vrindavan resident, takes care of widows who are routinely abandoned in the riverine town to achieve “moksha”.
She was one of the awardees of the maiden Nari Puraskar award, instituted by the women and child development ministry, for cremating the dead.
She recalls that number of times she has found a corpse of a widow in Vrindavan, often known as “mata” or “mai”, without any clothing. She says decades ago, bodies were routinely dumped in sacks and thrown into the river.
“There are girls as young as 14 who come here, even though most of them are old. Some come by their own volition, while some are abandoned here by their own sons,” says Dr Gautam.
An official in the women and child development ministry said that the government is keen on finding ways to change it. The newly-released national draft policy on women, which has a special focus on single women, aims to extend the same to widowed women.
“We are keen to get rid of the idea of widows as destitute women, and look at them as individuals with certain rights. A major issue they face is that after the death of her husband, they need to run from pillar to post to get certain entitlements. So now, we have undertaken a special drive with the state governments to ensure that the name of the widow is mandatorily mentioned in the death certificate of a man,” said the official.
A 1000-bed facility in Vrindavan, special provisions under MNREGA, financial entitlements to marry off daughters are certain benefits that are offered, said the official.
However, unless the women are seen as functional citizens, things may not change too much, says Pam Rajput, chairperson of the High Level Committee on Women which submitted the Status of Women report to the WCD ministry in May.
“A significant part of the women population in India are widows, and we have to look at certain rights and benefits to them. Resource allocation and capacity-building by involving corporate bodies as per CSR activities, and working towards the sustainable development goals could be starting points,” says Rajput.
She further recommends the creation of a national fund for widows that will act as a seed during emergencies, and ‘resilient cities’. “There are 100 smart cities earmarked, but are they going to help women, especially widowed women. We need resilient cities,” she says.
Dr Gautam says that the sociological factors need to be studied and curbed. She helped prepare a NALSA report in 2012, which recommended that state governments need to be roped in to stem the problem. “Most of the widows in Vrindavan come from West Bengal or Odisha; the state governments need to be pulled up significantly for this,” she said.