On the occasion of International Widows’ Day, Kul Bhushan reports on the plight of an estimated 258 million widows worldwide (46 million in India alone), who face an uncertain future and poverty.
If a man can remarry, why can’t a woman?”
India’s Vice President Venkaiah Naidu, posed this sharp question during his speech at the prestigious Vigyan Bhawan, India’s top conference centre in New Delhi, on 23 June, the UN International Widows’ Day.
“There is a problem in the mindset of people, we need to change this mindset,” he added during a conclave organized by the Loomba Foundation.
Voicing the agony of an estimated 258 million widows worldwide, including 46 million in India, the various speakers highlighted their plight and poverty.
Widows are unheard and invisible worldwide. And perhaps the most oppressed and the poorest section of the society globally. Once a woman becomes a widow for no fault of hers, she is insulted, beaten and even raped by her family member(s), cheated of her property, slighted as a witch, degraded with cleansing rituals.
These rituals in poor countries are based on beliefs about the afterlife and suspicion about widows surviving their husbands. They can involve the widow having to drink the water used to wash the dead husband’s body, and sexual intercourse with a relative. In developing countries, widows face starvation and disease. Widows are deprived of their husband’s property and forcibly evicted from their homes because they supposedly brought bad luck. Serious problems are faced by widows who only have daughters and no sons, and by child widows between the ages of ten and seventeen in developing countries.
Even in developed countries, such as USA and Europe, unskilled or semi-educated widows face acute poverty, severe insecurity due to lack of affordable health care and lack of well-paid jobs for low skilled workers.
The challenges for the survival of widows were highlighted and solutions proposed by different speakers at this event attended by a hundred widows, sponsors for their welfare, top political leaders, diplomats and celebrities.
“The steps taken for the empowerment of widows will not be successful unless it is taken as a mass movement. Without a change in attitude, we cannot change much,” said India’s Minister for Law and Justice, Ravi Shankar Prasad, promising all legal assistance. He urged the government to provide livelihood skills, and education for their children to end ‘life-shattering emptiness and void’ faced by millions of such women.
“We have a Mothers’ Day, a Fathers’ Day, so why not a Widows’ Day on 23 June when Lord Loomba’s mother became a widow?” he asked.
The founder chairman of this foundation, Lord Raj Loomba, urged the Indian government to set up a National Commission for Widows since India has 46 million widows, the highest number in any country.
Established in 1997, the foundation has been relentlessly working for widows’ welfare for over two decades. It all started in 1954, when the father of ten-year old Raj Loomba died and his mother, Pushpa Wati, became a widow.
On the very day of his father’s death, Loomba’s grandmother ordered his mother to remove her jewellery and bindi, the mark on her forehead to show she was married, and wear white clothes from then onwards. From a happy wife, his mother was instantly transformed into a desolate widow. Raj never forgot this trauma. His father had provided for his family and so his mother was able to educate her children. He realized that this would be impossible for a poor widow.
To focus on the plight of poor widows, Raj and his wife Veena set up the Pushpa Wati Loomba Trust in 1997 when his mother had passed away. The charity became active in India, Asia and Africa. In India, over 200,000 widows’ lives have been transformed by the Loomba Foundation in last 20 years; and over 10,000 children of poor widows received an education. In 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a widows’ empowerment program for 5,000 widows in Varanasi.
After launching the International Widows Day in 2005 at the House of Lords, London, with Cherie Blair as President, Lord Loomba worked tirelessly to obtain the support of the United Nations to declare 23 June as International Widows’ Day in 2010. Widows’ Day is now celebrated in more than ten countries. In Kenya, more than a hundred widows have been assisted through an Entrepreneurship Program.
The hopelessness of all widows was highlighted by a frail, young woman from Jaipur who came on stage to accept a cheque for Rs. 100,000 from the Loomba Foundation. Hardly educated and unskilled, Priyanka Yadav, was widowed at the age of 16. Now at 22, she is starting life from scratch.
Related discourse excerpt by Osho
Make it a law that any man who wants to marry a second time has to marry a widow
Kul Bhushan is a regular contributor
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