There are approximately 34 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. Their status puts them on the fringe of society.
Most of them experience deprivations and discriminations 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 and must forego all forms and symbols of feminity. Traditional superstitions mark them as inauspicious. Some people even think that their shadows brings bad luck. That is why widows are banned from some religious ceremonies and weddings (sometimes even of their own children’s wedding ceremonies).
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 (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 environments, they come to the holy city of Vrindavan in order to devote themselves to Lord Krishna and find salvation and peace. But even here, many become victims of rejection and discrimination, and some widows depend mainly on begging, singing devotional songs, and charity.
Though the cultural sigmitization of widows continues there is a change happening in the attitudes of people regarding widows, particularly in urban India. The exodus of widows to the holy citiy of Vrindavan has trickled down with more and more widows opting to stay with their children, who are running double income homes. 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.
Non-governmental organizations are taking measures for the empowerment of widows. These organisations run shelter homes and capacity-building centres, where young widows are taught skills and older ones are given the comfort of food and medicines. They provide widows 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. But still the need for improvement is huge and interventions are few. Change is taking place, but slowly.
About the author:
Sascha Richter Le was born 1987 in Berlin, Germany. He studied South and Southeast Asia studies and Philosophy at Humboldt University of Berlin, where he graduated in 2015. Since than he started focussing on social documentary photography. His work has been published by CTXT, P3 and The Diplomat. His series „Mothers“ has been awarded honorable mention at the International Photographer of the Year Award. Previously he was a finalist at Travel Photographer of the Year in 2015 and was awarded „Best Personal Portfolio“ at the Moscow International Foto Awards 2015.