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India: Poverty and neglect force widows into prostitution, begging

Dec 07, 2010

Widows in the Indian holy city of Vrindavan are still living a life of neglect despite the government’s ambitious scheme for their upliftment and remarriage. Extreme poverty has forced many into prostitution and begging for food and money on the streets.

Everything in the holy city of Vrindavan — grocery stores, restaurants, colleges, upcoming multi-storey apartments — is named after Lord Krishna. The dusty roads are crowded with people, cars and cows. The temples are full of devotees and monkeys. And at every street corner, in every temple and outside every roadside eatery, frail women in white saris stand and wait.

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They wait for someone to throw food or money at them, but they are not beggars and no one treats them as such. But begging of some sort is what the widows of Vrindavan — about 21,000 of them — do for a living. Old or young, they're called "Ma". The older ones have similar stories to tell: widowed young; ill-treated by their husbands' families or their own, finally dumped in Vrindavan.

Today, they live in the temples and ashrams that dot the town. Or they're on the streets. They sing bhajans in temples and wait for food or money on the streets. Some of the younger Mas have turned to prostitution.

It might have been different had anyone paid heed to an ambitious plan announced in 2007, by the then minister for women and child development Renuka Chowdhury. She said the government would extricate young widows from poverty and help them remarry, if they wanted to.

It was ambitious, even though the Hindu Widows' Remarriage Act gave them the right to remarry 150 years ago and the Hindu Succession Act gave them the same inheritance rights as men half-a-century ago. Back then, Chowdhury expressed public perplexity: "Why should so many widows find themselves utterly helpless and destitute in religious towns like Mathura and Vrindavan?"

Three years on, nobody here, particularly the widows, admits to knowing about Chowdhury's poverty alleviation and remarriage scheme.

"The scheme was a hoax. Forget remarriage, the government has not even provided basic needs such as food and pensions to thousands of widows who live in Mathura and Vrindavan," says Mohini Giri, head of Guild for Service, an NGO that runs the Aamar Bari shelter for widows in Vrindavan.

Just days ago, the Guild released a report, Dimensions of Deprivation: Study on the Poverty Levels of Widows of Vrindavan, based on a survey of 500 widows.

It found that 78%, young and old, were afraid of sexual and physical harassment, worry about being cremated without the proper rites, becoming homeless or going hungry. A majority of widows (83%) earn between Rs 200 and Rs 1,000 a month; 7% less than Rs 200 a month and 10% more than Rs 1,000 a month. "They live in terrible conditions," says Giri, former chairperson of the National Commission for Women. In India, the incidence of widowhood rises sharply with age. More than 60% of women aged 60 or more, and 80% of those aged 70 or more are widows.

Megha is in her mid-70s and says she doesn't remember meeting her husband. He died when she was nine. After a few tortured years at home, her brothers deposited Megha at an ashram here. Ever since, she has begged on the streets of Vrindavan. "I hope I find moksha here," she says, without a trace of self-pity in her voice. Savitri Devi, 65, doesn't seem to feel sorry for herself. A mother of four, she was widowed about 20 years ago, raised her children on her own and saw them married. "My two daughters-in-law began treating me badly, so I ran away from home and live here happily with the other Mas," she says. Then there are those who became widows by choice. Sandhya, from Mumbai, ran away from home. "My husband was the threat. I feel safer, more comfortable here," says the 49-year-old who lives with 200 other Mas at Aamar Bari.

Abandoned by their families and neglected by the authorities, the Mas of Vrindavan have few support systems other than each other, says Giri.

Interestingly, she and some others believe Vrindavan's Mas are breaking new ground even as they are held fast by Hindu society's age-old dismissiveness of widows. "They are veering away from the traditional beliefs, how widows should live and what they should wear and eat. They do not believe in tonsuring their heads, and some of the younger ones seem open to the idea of remarriage," says Giri. There have been some remarriages, organised by NGOs and individuals. But the Central government scheme announced by Renuka Chowdhury remains no more than a note in a file in the ministry of women and child development.

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