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South Asian Conference Capacity Building of Marginalized Women: Widow
Conference Report-IV -- VOICES OF GRIT
1st-3rd February 2002, New Delhi


Psychological trauma of Widowhood: Vasanta Patri, "The trauma post widowhood can be described in one line . . . the widow discovers that she does not matter. Our society has excelled in "widow management". It takes a very long time for a woman to recover from the tragedy and gain her confidence again."

Society systematically robs the widow of her rights, needs and wants. Immediately after the death of her husband a woman becomes a social ghost. "You asexual individual . . . fast . . . eat only to live . . . do not dare to look healthy. Sleep on the floor. Make yourself ugly, cut off your hair . . . Remove your kumkum and sindhur. Now you are helpless. Surrender and give up."

Gradually the widow reaches a state of what is known as "Learned Helplessness". And this is when she believes that she will be better off dead . . . and nothing I will do will make a difference.

What kind of action can we take to get a woman out of this?

  • Create opportunities for her so that she succeeds in something.
  • Encourage her to observe, to see people similarly placed who can and have managed.
  • Constantly encourage. You can do it . . .
  • Encourage her to learn new skills.
  • Alter her perceptions about herself.
  • Make her aware of her rights.
  • Put her in touch with income generation activities.

Individual Stories About Courage

Widow from Bangladesh . . . Mustafa "Isn't the widow supposed to be safe anywhere in the world?"

I was 35 when my husband died. I was filled with sorrow and my world was completely destroyed. I had no one to share my feelings with. I was cursed all the time and soon I began to feel like a lifeless object. One word can describe what happened to me after my husband died: I became weak. . . . and dependent. The treatment meted out to widows is very much like what we have been hearing about in India. You begin to depend on other relatives. Sometimes even the children. Sons turn upon you. I am still suffering with my children.

Was there nothing to cheer me up? Yet I kept silent and kept my sorrows to myself . . . then I met Salma and my life turned around. I am now helping others to cope with their grief and get on with their lives . . ..

Widow from Sri Lanka: Prasanna Chandrika, "I know the meaning of loneliness."

My husband used to work for an audit office. He died while at work about 4 and years ago -- he had a heart attack. Ours was a marriage filled with love. It was an inter-caste wedding. Once widowed there were many situations I had to face. When my son married I was not able to attend the ceremony, was not allowed to touch the wedding sari. I did not attend functions. I did nothing that came under the category of pleasure. My children went abroad, one to Baharain and the other to Muscat. I was never so alone in my life.

To avoid the loneliness, 7 of us widows joined together to make an association. We travel together; we see movies together and go to restaurants together . . . we have begun to live again. There are 280 members in our association. . . . the membership fee is Rs 10. At this stage our current problem is finances . . . where do we get the money to run the association?

Widow form Nepal: Godavari "I lost everything even my confidence."

Godavari was 18 years old when her husband died. At that time her daughter was 2 years old. Upon the death of her husband, the in-laws changed overnight. She was ill-treated. She had to work hard from morning to evening, hardly ever sleeping and soon she began to be sexually harassed by her husband’s brother. This was when she began to slowly loose confidence in herself and her self-worth.

Her neighbors saw her condition and connected her with an NGO. The helped her to get through a sewing course. She now stitches clothes for a living supporting herself and her family.

At the time that her husband joined the army, they were not married. The nominees for pension continued to be in the name of the in-laws. This was not changed, do Godavari lost her pension rights.

Natdita Das: Actress, social activist and special invitee, "What does it feel like to be forced to do something you do not really want to do?"

I was always a rebel child. Never listening to anyone, not doing what I was told to. I was also a privileged child. I had everything I wanted in my life.

I was offered the role of the "widow" in Mira Nair's film, "Water". I was nervous to begin with -- nervous but also excited, as I knew that it was a challenging role. To understand my part in the film better, I shaved off the hair on my head. What I never realized was what a difference that suddenly made to my personality. It was such a different feeling. I began to feel ugly. I was at Varnasi for 15 days. I visited many widows' homes, old peoples' homes and began to understand what it feels like to be unwanted and abandoned.

My major learning happened at a "Widows Shelter" at the bottom of a Guest House. Initially, the land and building was allotted to house widows. The person in charge realized that by hiring out those rooms, good money could be made. All the widows were then shunted down to an airless, windowless basement. This was their home now; a crowded life with many women huddled together. The widows are all over 50 years old, all from underprivileged classess. They are expected to leave the guest house at the crack of dawn . . . go out and beg for alms. They are not encouraged to be seen by the guests, as the owner of the guesthouse does not want the premises to be maligned by their presence.

When I began to visit them I understood their lives better. They laugh, fight, chat and cry together. They would cook food for me. They were happy to have visitors. They had a sense of pride and some self worth in their own way.

I began to then understand what it felt like to be a widow.

Other Voices of Hope –- Voices of Grit

  • In addition one year there were 300 farmers' deaths, farmers who committed suicide as they were deeply in debt. So many women become widowed.

  • We also had a case of a widow whose husband had dies of AIDS. The widow had been tested positive and she has 3 children. She was thrown out of her in-laws house. We intervened and convinced the family to take her back, which they have done. Moral support is what is essential.

  • We had one case of the father-in-law sexually abusing the widow, we have succeeded in stopping this.

  • We had a case of a widow with 4 children. Her brother-in-law tried to poison her. We are fighting a case in court.

  • Jaishree is widowed -- she has 2 daughters. Our organization has given her shelter and is helping to fight for her property rights.

  • Just when we think we are closer to victory they slap another case on us. Our legal system ensures that cases take years to solve.

  • We need women to be trained as decision makers.

  • Women need to be agents of change.

  • We want women to take a pledge that their girls and boys should be treated equally.

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