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South Asian Conference Capacity Building of Marginalized Women: Widow
Report -- Second Installment
1st-3rd February 2002, New Delhi

Reprinted by permission of Dr. V. Mohini Giri

Justice J. S. Versa, Chairperson, National Human Rights Commission began his address by saying, "The plight of widows is a process of gender bias. Gandhiji once said that it remains a mystery to me as to how a man can feel honored by violating women. India has reformers like R. Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar who understood the situation of widows, opposed injustice and catalyzed society to change."

He pointed out that the composition of the audience at the conference was more women than men. . . It is men who should be sensitized to the problems of the widow as the widow is marginalized several times more than a woman.. .He said that an NGO had written to the NHRC stating the word "beva" used to describe the state of a woman is discriminatory and should be removed as it hurts the women thus addressed. The NHRC wrote to the Government of India and State Governments in this regard.

There were some negative responses to this letter:

  • Language is a living part of human behavior.
  • It is a common word and it is all right to use it and difficulty to prevent its usage.
  • Beva is Persian word to describe a woman who has lost her husband.
  • Vidhwa is a Sanskrit word to describe a woman who has lost her husband.
  • It is unwise to stop using the word.
  • Mindsets need to be changed about the word "widow". This is nothing wrong with it.

The underlying argument in response to the letter can be simply described as: why all this fuss over a word?" It indicated that some State Governments were not even aware of the discriminative impact of language.

There were many positive responses however:

  • Let us stop using the word beva.
  • Let us respect women.
  • We will request officials to stop using the word and place an office order to that effect.
  • Let us take legislative action if required.

During the 1987 Deorala Sati incident, a mob of 50,000 people came forward protesting that the Sati incident was clearly an act of national Shame. We have other examples of National Shame. In a village at Bharatput there is no recorded birth of a female child for many years and the villagers proudly say that "Yahan say baarat nahein utih hay." -- meaning that we have no brides to give away -- we only bring home brides. Our country figures for sex ratio again show imbalance.

A woman should be recognized as an individual first, recognition of her identity is important for her upliftment. We have to change our mind set, thinking and behavior towards a widow. it is important to change our attitude. We have to stop thinking that after the demise of the husband a woman becomes a non-person, rather we have to recognize her problems that she has to face after the death of her husband.

Change can occur only when:

  • A woman makes her own identity.
  • When our legislation stops having a bias.
  • Biases that begin at home are given a new look and each one of us change-begin with ourselves.
  • Education is available to all. There are many positive experiences that we can draw from Kerala: example: fertility that has been controlled by women's education.

Justice Verma released the book "Living Death: Trauma of widowhood in India", a collection of articles, studies and perspectives on widowhood in India compiled by Dr. Mohini Giri for the Guild of Service.

Vaidyanathan Aiyer, Secretary to the Government of India, Dept. of Women and Child began by saying, "I remember from my own life, examples of discrimination against widows. My aunt (mother's sister) was widowed and I can recall the misery she went through." He indicated the sensitivity of the Govt. of India to the issue since a number of schemes are being put in place.

  • Last year a budget allocation was made for projects to help women in difficult circumstances.
  • Rs. 3.5 crore has been allocated for major project.
  • The conferences and other social organizations will help to strengthen this issue.
  • Governmental agencies would like to work with The Guild of Service and other NGO's and social organizations to combat this grave issue regarding the hapless widows.

There has to be a combined effort to fight cooperating with SAARC countries to put an end to the problem of child trafficking connected with exploitation of widows.

The renowned scholar Kapila Vatsyayan, began by saying, "An unattached woman is sometimes dependent on others and this process of dependence gives rise to rejection -- dependence and rejection have always gone together in society." The India woman has always had the capacity to suffer and suffer silently. This malaise has to be removed. Nature intended a balance in all life forms including the human species. Women and men are complementary to each other and cannot exist without each other. They are like fingers at the end of the palm, cut one and the functioning of the hand will get affected. There is no hierarchy in fingers similarly there should be none in society. The palm is society; differentiation of roles in society will exist. All fingers have to converge. . . there has to be inter-connectivity. Men have always assumed the higher role, they have been insensitive and do things of their own free will. While men are completely -- emotionally dependent first on their mothers, then wives, daughters and granddaughters, they continue to wield power over women. There are many patterns of patriarchy we can see in India. . . the commonest perhaps are application forms where we can see "w/o" (wife of), but never do we see "h/o" (husband of). There has always been harassment against women. . . how is it possible that one human being can treat another human being badly?

We need practical steps to remove the imbalance needed to build the capacity of women. We need to become agents and catalysts of capacity building. Economic empowerment perhaps is the answer to the imbalance. When a woman has economic independence she automatically has power. Manu said: If a woman is not worshipped in a household that house is evil, asuras reside where a woman is not respected. In spite of all that there is Kashi and the Devdasis in the south . . . this is the small pox of our society that has been created. It has to be destroyed, it has to be eradicated as this disease in our society has been coupled with rottenness and hypocrisy.

We need to change mindsets but where do we start? Where does one begin? The beginning has to be with ourselves.

The inaugural came to a fitting finale with a Bharatnatyam dance presentation "Shakti" presenting the inherent strength of a woman. The renowned dancer Rama Vaidyanathan danced to the poetic script written by Meera Khanna. The interpretation that combines the power of free verse with the expressive range of Bharatnatyam emphasized the role of women not just as beneficiaries but as architects of their circumstances and strength. The protagonist faced with the cruel irony of a society that gives her the status of a goddess but denies her the human right of equality, the tragedy of losing her identity in the relentless destruction of violence, realizes that her support is from within her own reservoir of courage. She realizes that she must internalize the qualities that the goddesses symbolize-Lakshmi with the strength of initiative, Saraswati with the power of knowledge and Durga with the victory of courage over the forces of violence as depicted by the tiger.

The presentation was a unique synthesis drawing from various creative sources. The Sanskrit verses extolling the qualities of strength of the goddesses was combined with Deven Khanna's poem in Hindi highlighting the irony of a widowed existence. The whole is held together by the blank verses in English emphasizing the brutality of society that deifies women while discriminating against them.

The same evening a photographic exhibition "Widows and Aging" was inaugurated by the social activist Nafeesa Ali. Created by Samar Jodha and Vijay Jodha the exhibition was a cameo on the tenuous link between widowhood and old age.

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