Widows in India: Invisible women facing invisible problems

widows in india face unseen problems
International Widows Day reminds us of the opportunity for action towards achieving full rights and recognition for widows in India.

Widows in India face discrimination, violence: Vrindavan, a city in Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh, just a few hours drive from Delhi, is also known as the city of widows. Vrindavan presents a stark contrast to the life and living of a large group of widows abandoned and destitute. Widows in Vrindavan are a potent reminder of the marginalisation of a large segment of women who become destitute after their husbands’ demise. While most go to Vrindavan — the birthplace of Lord Krishna, to find solace in religion, many go there because they have nowhere else to go. Others are dumped by their families which no longer want to pay for their care or usurp their properties.

The United Nations observes 23 June as International Widows Day (resolution A/RES/65/189) since 2011 to draw attention to the voices and experiences of widows and galvanise the exceptional support that they need. For many women worldwide, loss of a partner is devastating and magnified by a long-term fight for their basic rights and dignity. However, even though there are more than 258 million widows worldwide, widows have historically been left unseen, unsupported, and unappreciated in our societies.

As per UN reports, armed conflicts, displacement and migration, and the Covid-19 pandemic leave tens of thousands of women newly widowed and many others whose partners are missing or disappeared. The unique experiences and needs of widows must be brought to the forefront to be part of the policy dialogue and actions for the rights and women’s equity, with their voices providing leading the way.

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Widows face socio economic discrimination

It is estimated that there are 40 million widows in India. With 10% of the country’s female population, India is the country with the largest widow population in the world. The experience of widowhood in India varies across socio-economic statuses, customs, religion, tradition and periods. However, they are still subject to customary laws, deep-rooted patriarchal traditions, religious legislations and extensive prejudice in inheritance rights. As a result, many families of different communities in India still shun and abandon widows.

According to World Bank reports, widows are sometimes victims of violence from in-laws and humiliating rites, dress code and isolation as part of the mourning process to demonstrate grief and loyalty to their husband even after his death. The International Widows Day is an opportunity to remind the governments to uphold their commitments to ensure the rights of widows as enshrined in international law, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Even when national laws exist to protect the rights of widows, weaknesses in the judicial systems and the influence of the traditional and customary norms, many states compromise on widows’ rights.

In the case of Vrindavan widows, in most cases, these women have a right to their deceased husband’s property. Under the Hindu Succession Act 1956, a widow can claim her share in her deceased husband’s property. The provision is to preserve her financial security and status even after the death of her husband. The liability is on every person who is sharing the property. However, often the widows do not demand to guarantee the protection of the laws. The internalised patriarchal social norms often do not allow them to do so. Specific religious practices do provide sanction for this continuing violation of women’s right to equity.

Violence against widows is rooted in the widely accepted social norms that contribute to gender inequity, male entitlement, and the belief in men’s right to domination and control over women’s bodies. Often these norms are exhibited through the ideas such as ‘husbands (or in-laws) right to use violence to correct the behaviour of women’ and the patriarchal idea of ‘family honour’.

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Widows face poverty, violence and health

  • Lack of access to credit or other economic resources for childcare or education. No rights or limited rights to inheritance or land ownership under customary and religious law makes them dependent on the charity of their husbands’ relatives.
  • Disowned by relatives and made homeless, many women seek informal work as domestic labourers or turn to beg or prostitution. In some cases, widows can become liable for the debts of a deceased spouse.
  • Widows often find themselves the victims of physical and mental violence – including sexual abuse – related to inheritance, land and property disputes.
  • Widows coerced into participating in harmful, degrading and even life-threatening traditional practices as part of burial and mourning rites. For example, in many countries, widows are forced to drink the water that their husbands’ corpses have been washed in. Mourning rites may also involve shaving off the hair, adhering to a particular dressing pattern and scarification.
  • Widows often experience poor health conditions due to poor nutrition, inadequate shelter and vulnerability to violence, combined with lack of healthcare access. As widows are expected to be asexual, widows’ sexual and reproductive health needs may go unaddressed. Widows are particularly vulnerable in the context of HIV and AIDS. Women may be kept unaware of the cause of their husband’s AIDS-related death and made to undergo ritual cleansing through sex with male relatives regardless of HIV status. The economic insecurity stemming from widowhood also drives some women and girls to sex work.
  • Vast numbers of women are widowed due to armed conflict. There are an estimated over 70,000 widows in Kabul, Afghanistan. Widows struggle to care for themselves and their children in their own countries, refugee camps or countries of asylum.
  • Trauma during and after the conflict: many women see their husbands tortured, mutilated or suffering other inhuman treatment. Widows may themselves be subject to discrimination or conflict-related violence – including sexual violence where they are raped, mutilated, or infected with HIV.

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The international aid agency Oxfam’s research from 12 countries across Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean and the Pacific compiled 10 of these social norms that drive violence against women and girls. These norms are extended to widows as well in their worst forms.

  • Women must be submissive to male family members in all aspects of their life.
  • Men are expected to exercise coercive control over women.
  • Men have the right to discipline women for ‘incorrect’ behaviour.
  • Women cannot deny their male partner sex.
  • Sexual harassment is normal.
  • Women experience violence because they are dressed ‘provocatively’.
  • All women should become mothers.
  • Girls are valued as wives, not as individuals.
  • Heterosexuality is the only sexual orientation that is acceptable.
  • Divorced women/ Widows have lesser value.

Lack of awareness and discrimination by judicial officials can cause widows to avoid turning to the justice system to seek reparations. Experience from past pandemics, for example, HIV/AIDS and Ebola, shows that widows are often denied inheritance rights, have their property grabbed after the death of a partner, and can face extreme stigma and discrimination, as perceived carriers of disease.

Worldwide, women are much less likely to have access to old-age pensions than men, so the death of a spouse can lead to destitution for older women. Moreover, in the context of lockdowns and economic closures, widows may not have access to bank accounts and pensions to pay for healthcare if they too become ill or to support themselves and their children.

Widows often experience hidden human rights violations, particularly by child widows in many countries. These violations are also embedded in social, political, economic, religious, cultural and traditional beliefs and practices. As a result of these beliefs and harmful practices, widows and child widows are rendered invisible and subjected to numerous human rights violations, including:

  • Violence in all its varied forms.
  • Extreme poverty.
  • Social and cultural exclusion and marginalisation.
  • Oppression and neglect.
  • Treatment as objects, commodities or chattel.
  • Denial of access to education, health and essential services.
  • Multiple obstacles to accessing justice systems.
  • Denial of autonomy and independence.
  • Addressing equity and rights of destitute widows needs a range of programmes and policies for ending violence against widows and their children, poverty alleviation, education and other support to widows of all ages. This is also important in the context of the country’s commitment to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

In fragile states and post-conflict situations, widows should be brought in to participate fully in peacebuilding and reconciliation processes to ensure that they contribute to sustainable peace and security. Furthermore, in the context of post-Covid-19 reconstruction, widows must not be left out of the decision-making table. Researchers and activists are responsible for ensuring that the recovery prioritises their unique needs and supports societies to be more inclusive, resilient, and equitable.

International Widows Day reminds us of the opportunity for action towards achieving full rights and recognition for widows. Any meaning full action to ensure the rights of destitute widows 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, discriminatory or harmful practices, violence, reforming legal systems and enforcing the full potential of existing laws.

(Prof Joe Thomas is a member of the board of management of Maitri, a New Delhi-based humanitarian NGO providing care and shelter for about 300 destitute widows in Vrindavan. He is Professor of Public Health, Institute of Health and Management, Victoria, Australia. Opinions are personal.)

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Dr Joe Thomas is Professor of Public Health, Institute of Health and Management, Victoria, Australia. Opinions expressed in this article are personal.