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Widowhood in India

Widowhood in India
- Shivalika Verma, New College, Pune

Widow is a woman who has lost her spouse. “Widowhood is a situation of social demise of the husband,” says Mohini Giri, a veteran activist in the fight for Women’s rights and a widow herself, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize 2005. She explained that many conservative families see widows as a liability. The ordinary term for a widow in India is “vidhwa” which originates from the Sanskrit word “vidh” which means “to be destitute”. There are around 55 million widows in India that is around as same as the entire population of South Africa and Tanzania. There is no sole concept with respect to widowhood, it is subjected to diverse experiences, varied inter personal and social implications and various changes in the life of women across varying cultural settings.

Historical Background:-

In ancient India (or Vedic period), women had high esteem in the society. They availed the right to education, and liberty in the right of choice of the spouses (Swyamvar). In respect of widowhood too, the norms were flexible enough. A widow had several options like Sahamaranathat is, voluntarily joining the dead husband on his funeral pyre. There was also the process of Niyog: a procedure through which a widow could conceive another man’s child if she desired to do so and thereafter spend the rest of her life nurturing the child, alternatively she could also opt for Brahmacharya that is rigid celibacy where she ceases perform any sexual activity. She also had the option of finding another spouse of her choice.

But during the later Vedic age and the early medieval era, the sublime status of women went on a downslide. In the opinion of 2000 year old text by Manu, the Hindu primogenitor of mankind: “A righteous wife is one who after the death of her husband constantly remains chaste and reaches heaven though she has no son. ”Traditions like ‘widow-burning’ or Sati framed the patterns of social behavior of Hindu society for widows. The conduct towards them turned to be extremely unjust and sadistic. Conventionally, the widow was held responsible for her husband’s death. Even the shadow of a widow was believed to inflict depredation and brought ill luck. It was also believed that once her husband died, the wife should pronounce all comforts of home. She should wear a plain white sari as a sign of lamentation. The appearance of widows at rituals, ceremonies and celebrations was considered unpropitious. Those coming from orthodox families, in some cases, even shove the woman’s head after the death of husband. This was particularly done to make the widow sexually unattractive, so that no man is attracted to her or she never gets married.

Sati Ban and present situation:-

Sati was terminated during the British rule and in 1856 the British validated widow remarriage in India. It has been 72 years since independence, despite all of the advancements; still widows lead a dejected and miserable life in many towns of India. Widows in India, no longer throw themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands, but life for them can still be deprived. The experience of widowhood varies across customs and time periods. They are still subject to patriarchal traditions, religious legislations and extensive prejudice in inheritance rights. Many families of different communities in India still eschew and abandon widows. In general, widowhood in India is a very insubstantial period in the life of a woman, underlined by notable impoverishment, lack of family support and a prominent risk of mortality.

Vrindavan and Varanasi- The Widow Cities of India:-
Nobody can quite explain why these particular towns attract widows around India. Some come as genuine worshippers to commit their remaining years to the service of Radha-Krishna, but many others come here to get away from barbaric family homes as they are considered as unwanted baggage. Some of the widows here lead a disgusted life as they have no one to look after them and they have to engage in practices like begging and prostitution for maintaining a sustainable livelihood. The Supreme Court of India after taking into consideration of media reports of their discreditable living conditions in these towns ordered the government and civic agencies to ameliorate the lives of women in Vrindavan. The Uttar Pradesh government has also initiated to appoint a panel to collect data on the socio-economic conditions of widows.

Child Widow in India:-

Child widows are those young girls who have endured both child marriage and widowhood before the age of eighteen. They have undergone multiple violations of their human rights from very young age. Being widow at the tender age, they lack ingress to justice and are manipulated by various persons. Rights are provided by our government for safeguarding them.

Laws made for the protection of Widow’s Rights:-

1.Hindu Widow’s Remarriage Act 1956:-

Under the East India Company rule, this act was enacted on 26 July 1856 which legalized remarriage of Hindu widows in all jurisdictions. It was the first important social reform law after the abolition of Sati by Lord William Bentinck. Due to which widows are entitled to remarry on their choice.

2.Property rights of the Widows:-

Earlier, widows who decided to remarry were forbid by the law from inheriting their deceased husband’s property. As stated under the provisions of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, widows who choose to remarry still have a right on their deceased husband’s property. She is grouped under Class –I heirs of her deceased husband and shall have the right to inherit. However, the Hindu Succession Act also prescribes that certain widows who cannot succeed or inherit. “Certain widows remarrying may not inherit as widows. Any heir, who is related to an intestate as the widow of a pre-deceased son or the widow of a brother shall not be entitled to succeed to the property of the intestate as such widow, if on the date the succession opens, she has re-married.”


According to the Hadith, Prophet Mohammad believed, “The one who looks after and works for a widow and for a poor person is like a warrior fighting for Allah’s cause.” And in my opinion it is the foremost duty of the family members to take care of the widows in their family. A Landmark conference on widows in India was held in the year of 1994 at IIM Bangalore. Widows from different parts of India were invited to bring their predicament into public discussion. This allowed them to share their feelings and struggles with the rest of the group members. 
The real voice for change must come from the within and the first step would be the change of the credulous mind-set that denies widows their right to live and equal status in the society. We, as the citizens of a democratic country must see their hardships and try to sensitize the issue. Many welfare schemes including, employment opportunities must be given to them by the government so that they become financially independent. The awareness of their struggles must be raised so that necessary steps can be taken for their welfare.