South Asian Conference Capacity Building of Marginalized Women: Widow
Report -- First Installment
1st-3rd February 2002, New Delhi
Reprinted by permission of Dr. V. Mohini Giri
It was for the first time that an international conference had been organised in India with the focus being the South Asian widows. The seed for this initiative was born at the "Empowering Widows in Development" conference in London 2001, where it was felt that a greater focus has to be given to the status of widows, since they have problems peculiar to their marital status. The Guild of Service became the focal point as Regional Coordinators for South Asia. UNIFEM with its deep sensitivity to the issue immediately recognised the vital need to focus greater attention of teh UN system on this marginalized seciton of women. UNIFEM supported the conference. This support with the committed work of the Guild of Service ensured the success of the conference and the far-reaching consequences in initiating a South Asian Alliance for Empowering Widows.
The tone of the conference was set by the strategised release of curtain raisers as articles in the print media and interviews through the electronic media. A painting exhibition focussing on widows was inaugurated on 1st morning at the art gallery Chemistry of Colours by Mr. L.M. Singhvi MP. The artists Bijan Paul, Sangeeta Gupta had tried through the medium of colours to portray the lack of colour in the lives of widows.
The inaugural session began with the significance of the conference being emphasized by Meera Khana who compared the session - 40 million widows in India, who knowingly and unknowingly had great hopes from the conference- great hopes that perhaps after centuries of oppression and deprivation, dignity would be restored. A hope shared by millions of sisters across the South Asian region. This inaugural session began by recognizing and lighting that beacon of hope. Sisters lit the lamp, empowered by the strength of their own dignity.
The welcome address was given by Dr. Mohini Giri, Chairperson of the Guild of Service. Before her address, one of the widows who had been empowered by the Guild of Service spoke about her future: "I was nowhere . . . I was around lost . . . my life around me crashed. Where was I? How was I going? Then I met Mohiniji . . . I am what I am today because of Mohiniji and Amarbadi . . . I went through a nursing training and my life turned [around].
Dr. Giri said that there is an emptiness in the lives of "vishwastas": women whose lives are filled with sadness . . . "Is it not time for widows to be noticed and heard, is it not time to include these women into society? Is it not time for them to exercise their rights?"
South Asia has always been a region of contradictions. To this existing scenario, another demon has been added in the form of Fundamentalism. This has given rise to genocide and with it an alarming increase in the numbers of widows. Widows are "created" due to such conflicts; women are displaced, families are reduced to poverty, girls are raped and abused: unfortunate circumstances: never of their own making. She welcomed all the Indian and South Asian delegates. She made a special reference to the delegate from Pakistan who had to take a circuitous route to come to Delhi. Some changes that the conference hoped to bring about were:
- Improve networks within media, civil society and the government
- Encourage widow to widow bonding and bonding of widows with family, friends, and society
- Catalyze the process of legal remedies
- Put in place safe guards and safety nets
- Increase awareness about the plight of widows
- Concentrate on capacity building so that single women would be better equipped to manage their lives and their families.
- Draw attention to current gaps in policy
- Ensure that widows have a firm position within the framework of CEDAW and the various commissions for women in different countries.
- Collectively make strong statements internationally to expose the real situation of the plight of widows
Dr. Giri quoted the example of the trauma of her widowed mother who at 30 years of age was widowed with seven children. The stark image of her trying to fix the fuse in a dark household was symbolic of the darkness in a widow's home after the demise of her husband. In a symbolic gesture, small wicks and lamps were gifted to the guests on the dais.
Shyama Agarwal, Vice Chairperson of the Guild of Service, read out messages of best wishes from the President, Vice President and Prime Minister of India.
Chandni Joshi, Regional Director, UNIFEM said, "Why do we marginalize women who are anyway so unhappy? Why single them out as widows? Why draw attention to them? -- I met a group from Vrindavan and my attitude changed, my feelings changed. I understood that these women had been firmly relegated to the world of shadows, of violation, of injustice, to a world without an identity. I became a widow in 1992. For a year I wore white. when my daughter got married I did avoid the married couple so that no harm should happento my daughter because of my presence. Nobody told me to stay away, but I was carrying a social baggage of myths, beliefs and guilt."
The stigma of widowhood is so strong that it affects women across class and caste groups. Families have no guilt when they abandon their widowed relatives in temple towns or hide them away. They have no guilt when they slowly but strongly pressurize women into giving up all the joyful and happy things sanctioned only to women whose husbands are alive.
Widows are doubly marginalized first as women and then as widows. Deprived of voice and visibility, there are about 33 million widows in India, with every 4th house having a widow. It is estimated that in Kabul alone there are 50,000 widows. The degree of neglect can also be gauged when one looks at some figures and statistics with reference to pension. In India alone, of the 28 percent of widows eligible for pension only 11 percent have got it. In some states the pension itself was a mere Rs. 100.
Subsequently we have seen an increase to Rs 500 -- this only recently due to collective action by women's groups.
The action post Beijing Women's Conference has been slow and freewheeling -- violence against widows continues showing little sign of slowing down. The position of widows needs to be brought out sharply by CEDAW. There is a strong need to catalyze political will. The violence has been going on for too long. The change in the socio-cultural value is also slow. The religious and economic position of widows has to be changed. The Government and legal policies have to change to suit (concerning the empowerment of widows). Emphasizing UNIFEM's role, she said that an attempt would be made to network on a plan to improve the social and economic status of the widow. This alone can fight discrimination to some extent.
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