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The invisible plight of India’s widows

Hindu widows in Bombay in 1906. Image credit: R. C. Dutta / Public domain

To become a widow is to experience profound personal tragedy. Tragically, for many of India’s widows, the pain of such a loss and the grief that ensues lays the foundation for continued hardship – for a life marked by stigmatisation, dehumanisation, loneliness, and despair. 

Widowed women populate India in significant numbers. “There are at least 55 million widows in India, probably more,” reports a Hindu Business Line article published in October 2017 (and updated the following January). “That is around the same as the entire population of countries like South Africa and Tanzania, more than all the people in South Korea or Myanmar.” 

June 23rd marks International Widows’ Day – and the United Nations outlines just how fraught the life of a widow can be. “There are an estimated 258 million widows around the world, and nearly one in ten live in extreme poverty,” it notes. The observance of International Widows’ Day presents “an opportunity for action towards achieving full rights and recognition for widows. This includes providing them with information on access to a fair share of their inheritance, land and productive resources; pensions and social protection that are not based on marital status alone; decent work and equal pay; and education and training opportunities. Empowering widows to support themselves and their families also means addressing social stigmas that create exclusion, and discriminatory or harmful practices.” 

In 2015, the proportion of widows worldwide living in poverty was as high as one in seven. That year, India – with a reported 46 million widows at that time – became the country with the largest population of widows, overtaking China. Since then, the number has ostensibly increased – and may not reflect the true burden of widowhood in the country. 

In India, many widows have flocked to the city of Vrindavan – a city that has become internationally recognised, by sources ranging from BBC News in the United Kingdom to The New York Times in the United States, as the nation’s “city of widows.” This inauspicious designation betrays the suffering that too often accompanies widowhood. The Independent last year reported the story of Nirmala Maheshwari who, upon being widowed, felt her family considered her “a burden” and endured physical abuse, including starvation and beatings, from relatives. She, like many others who find themselves in the position of widowhood, went to Vrindavan and took up occupancy in a government-run ashram. 

This represents progress, the Independent report notes. “Many of India’s castaway widows – most of them illiterate, some married off as infants – have seen significant improvements in their quality of life over the past few years,” it states. “Prodded by a flurry of public petitions and court rulings, the government and rights groups have invested tens of millions of dollars into lifting the conditions of abandoned women. The money has gone not only into building group homes for widows, but also to funding pensions and providing work training and medical treatment.” 

A 19th century illustration of sati – the now illegal practice where a woman self-immolates on her husband’s funeral pyre. Image credit: Frederic Shoberl
A woman clad in white with her head shorn - among the restrictions on physical appearance widows may face. Image credit: John Haslam / CC BY (
A woman clad in white with her head shorn – among the restrictions on physical appearance widows may face. Image credit: John Haslam / CC BY (

Nonetheless, the sociocultural bias many Indian widows endure – a reflection of the country’s manifold issues as it pertains to gender parity and sex-based bias – still incurs a devastating toll. The practice of sati – the self-immolation by a widow upon her husband’s funeral pyre – is illegal now, but multiple forms of dehumanisation persist. Women can be denigrated as ‘it’ upon the loss of their spouse; they may be ostracised in their communities, endure restrictions about their physical appearance, sex lives and even diets, be confined to their homes or expelled from them entirely. 

Even life in the ashrams like the one occupied by Maheshwari poses difficulties. Women can be forced to resort to begging or prostitution. As SBS News notes, “while the government runs ashrams, they only accommodate a fraction of what is needed, leaving NGOs [non-government organisations], charities and religious organisations to step in.” 

The stigma surrounding widows endures today and ought to be addressed. It is undoubtedly good that governments, NGOs, and other entities are working to support widows – but there is a broad societal need, one no less than a moral and social imperative, to end the stigma surrounding widowhood. Taking an axe to social mores that denigrate widows and affording them the respect and humanity they deserve will not be an easy task. However, for society’s sake, it must not be viewed as a task beset by insurmountable odds.

Such efforts have been undertaken for years. For example, “a UN Women programme in…three countries is enabling 1500 widows across the three countries to fight stigma and access services and entitlements,” the agency said in 2013. The “innovative programme called ‘Empowerment of Widows and their Coalitions… works to mitigate the social exclusion faced by widows”, it added, outlining how the “three-year joint initiative by UN Women and Swiss National Committee…currently being implemented in ten locations across India, Nepal and Sri Lanka…aims at evolving replicable strategies to empower widows.” 

<em><strong>Widows celebrate Holi - in defiance of social norms. Image credit: Avijitghosh8 / CC BY-SA (</strong></em>
Widows celebrate Holi – in defiance of social norms. Image credit: Avijitghosh8 / CC BY-SA (

Such programmes for empowerment are a necessity, at the global, regional and national levels. International Widows’ Day underscores the importance of ensuring widows do not experience tragedy upon tragedy – not only the pain of loss, but of social exclusion. Their rights must be protected and their plights must not simply occur in silence. Addressing this will not be easy – but it must be done. 

In the darkness, hope – as it often is – may be found in the responses of children. In recent years, widowed women – in acts of defiance – have participated in Holi celebrations. A few years ago, hope was found for one widowed woman. “Times have changed for the good. People no longer look at us as a curse,” Rasia, widowed aged seventeen, told The Times of India after participating in Holi in Vrindavan in 2016. “When I see these young children having no inhibitions in sharing their joys with women like me, I feel very happy.” 

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