India: Poverty and neglect force widows into prostitution, begging

Published on, Source: Source: The Times of India , Dec. 7, 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 … //

… 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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