There are around 40 million widows in India at this time. In the classical, brahmanical view, they are physically alive but socially dead. They were expected to die before their husbands or along with them, otherwise they would remain in the in-law’s houses, often barred from chances to remarry.
The death of the husband marks the transition from a wife to a widow and thereby the loss of the widow’s social and religious identity.
Their status puts them on the fringe of society. Most of them experience deprivation and discrimination on a daily basis, not least of which include suffering from severe depression because of isolation, and the absence of emotional and social support.
Widows are socially stigmatized, expected to always wear white clothes, which is the color symbolizing death and their asexuality. They further must forego all forms of makeup and symbols of marriage, like bangles, ornamental chains, flowers, and the sindhoor (vermillion mark on their foreheads).
As a form of symbolic castration they also have to shave their hair and remove all symbols of feminity, thereby becoming subjugated to society, and men especially.
Traditional superstitions mark them as inauspicious. Some people even think that walking in their shadows brings bad luck. That is why widows are banned from some religious ceremonies and weddings (sometimes even of their own children’s nuptials).
As a form of symbolic castration they also have to shave their hair and remove all symbols of feminity, thereby becoming subjugated to society, and men especially
Widows’ access to resources typically ends with the demise of the husband. A lot of them are not able to support themselves and become economically and socially dependent on their children, who often face problems in sharing their resources with their mothers. In many cases, the mother becomes a burden because of the financial insecurity of the family, and is consequently abandoned.
Although the Constitution now guarantees widows the right to remarry and the right to property and inheritance, this is often obscured by lack of information. For example, in the past girls were often married at a very young age (at 14 or younger), before they were able to complete their education. Therefore they were often not aware of their legal rights, nor could they afford a lawyer to assist them.
Sometimes widows even subordinate themselves under customs, for the sake of the family harmony, and forfeit their inheritance for their children or in-laws.
Living in oppressive and sometimes hostile environments, they come to the holy city of Vrindavan to devote themselves to Lord Krishna and find salvation (moksha) and peace.
Still, even in Vrindavan, reality sometimes paints a different picture. Being victims of rejection and discrimination, some widows depend mainly on begging, singing devotional songs (bhajans), and charity.
Though the cultural sigmitization of widows continues in some regions of India and among certain castes and communities, fortunately there is a change happening, both on the ground and in the attitudes of people regarding widows, particularly in urban India.
The exodus of widows to the holy cities of Vrindavan and Varanasi has trickled down with more and more widows opting to stay with their children, who are running double income homes.
Childcare under the supervision of the grandmother is more preferred than the sparse private facilities. Many widows, if they opt to come to the holy cities, are also doing it out of choice for an austere life dedicated to spirituality.
Civil society, in the form of non-governmental organizations, like Maitri India (headed by Winnie Singh) and The Guild for Service (run by Dr. Mohini Giri), are taking measures for the empowerment of these widows.
The organisations run shelter homes and capacity-building centers, where young widows are taught skills and older ones are given the comfort of food and medicines.
Center staff work hard to provide them a life with dignity, offering at least one warm meal a day, tap water, and shelter, so they do not fall victim to exploitation on the streets.
Some of the widows there regain the courage to wear colorful dresses and even bangles again, albeit inside the property. But still the need for improvement is huge and interventions are few. Change is taking place, but slowly.
Sascha Richter is a social documentary photographer based in Germany.