Rajkumari is a 25-year-old widow from Bangalore with a just 5th grade education. Under a common tradition, she should spend the rest of her life alone, living in poverty and austerity in one of India’s religious cities.
“I married by my own choice at age 18. My family and my husband’s family deserted us because they were against our relationship,” said Rajkumari. “Then my husband died and I had nowhere to go.”
Hindu custom calls for widows, regardless of age, to not enjoy any comforts in life. Their presence is considered a bad omen at any festivity or happy family occasion.
“If a man loses his wife, he thinks of marrying and settling down again. But that’s not the case for women here,” said Rajkumari, who goes by only one name. She now lives in a stay-home center in Sarnath in northern India.
Rajkumari is one among at least 40 million widows across the country. They get almost no social or institutional support because of a centuries-old tradition of isolating widows from mainstream society.
These widows generally lack job skills. Younger ones like Rajkumari can end up as prostitutes or in other exploitative work. Older ones tend to end up alone and destitute.
But now activist groups are asking the Indian government to come up with policy-level intervention.
“The PM should bring legislation in Parliament. All widows should be given help,” said Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, founder and director of Sulabh International. The Indian Supreme Court asked his NGO to provide care for destitute widows landing in the religious cities of Varanasi, Vrindavan and Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh state.
The Sulabh Foundation gives a monthly stipend of 2,000 rupees (about US$33) to about 1,200 widows in five government-run stay-homes in these cities. The organization also provides job training.
Dr. Pathak says the government should work to fundamentally change the way the society perceives widows.
“Government, however, cannot do it alone. Government should mobilize people and run a campaign. Widows should be provided dignity on par with men,” he said.
Meanwhile, Dr. Pathak and Sulabh International have succeeded in motivating Rajkumari to start life afresh. She is now considering learning computers and finishing her education, and possibly even remarrying someday.
“I want to educate children. If I see children out on roads and not going to school or if the parents are not sending their children to school, I want to tell them how important it is in today’s world to go to school,” Rajkumari said.
“In Sarnath I have found children like that. I have told them, ‘If you want to study, I’ll teach you.'”