Reducing Stigma against Widows in India, Nepal & Sri Lanka

Date: Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A UN Women programme in the three countries is enabling 1500 widows across the three countries to fight stigma and access services and entitlements

Udaipur (India), January 2013: 55-year-old Mannkunwar from Gulab Ji ka Guda village in Rajasthan’s Chittorgarh District became a widow at the age of ten. She neither remembers when she got married nor when she became a widow. Let alone lead and enjoy a normal childhood, she was forced to abide by discriminatory and traumatizing practices that widows are forced to abide by like wearing only black clothes and lead a Spartan life. For days she was only allowed a ‘drink’ made from water used to clean the paraat (a utensil in which dough is kneaded).

Today Mannkunwar is engaged fulltime, working with Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan (Association of Strong Women Alone), an organization that works to empower single women, including widows to live a life of dignity and respect in India. “Today, I am not alone. I am not an object of pity either. I am an inspiration to many others who have been through rough weather,” says Mannkunwar.

People say Mannkunwar is certainly an inspiration to other such single women whom she encourages to come, sing and dance with her and live a life full of courage and confidence.

UN Women’s Programme

Through an innovative programme called ‘Empowerment of Widows and their Coalitions’, UN Women works to mitigate the social exclusion faced by widows like Mannkunwar.

A three-year joint initiative by UN Women and Swiss National Committee is currently being implemented in 10 locations across India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. It aims at evolving replicable strategies to empower widows. This will enable them to access services and entitlements and become active leaders and lead coalitions. For example, the programme has supported 52 widows in accessing their pensions – a lifeline for their survival.

By including the problems of widows in national discourse and collecting improved data about the stigma and discrimination they face, the programme is working to change policies and evolve strategies. “We empower widows to access their entitlements with dignity, and become agents of change in their own right. This will be done by, amongst other strategies, working with widows’ coalitions so they can access services and entitlements, and ending discriminatory social practices against widows,” says Anju Dubey Pandey, Programme Specialist, UN Women South Asia.

UN Women works with the Guild for Service and Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan, Astha Sansthan in India, the Women for Human Rights (WHR) in Nepal and Women’s Education and Research Centre (WERC) in Sri Lanka. In its first year of implementation, UN Women and its partners were able to reach out to over 1,500 widows.

Nepal takes firm steps ahead

In Nepal, 1,117 people across 20 districts know more about the situation of widows. Interactions with 150 single women in Sunsari, Palpa, Kailali and Surkhet have resulted in an increase in awareness on single women’s issues amongst the local audience. It has also shown a marked commitment from local government representatives to assist single women at the local levels through resource allocation and participation in decision-making.

WHR as part of this UN Women programme has developed the Emergency Directives for the management of the Emergency Funds by the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare (MoWCSW). The programme led to inclusion of the following seven districts for the first time in such a programme: Parbat, Sindhuli, Parsa, Terathum, Darchula, Baglung and Dadeldhura.

Standing up to Society

M. Kajendini’s story from Sri Lanka is no different. Widowed at a young age, Kajendini faced ridicule and discrimination from her own family and community.

She tried wearing flowers in her hair and pottu or bindi (decorative mark worn on the forehead by Indian women) on her forehead. However, her young and energetic friends were the first to criticize her for her inability to adjust to widowhood saying that her time with flowers and pottu are gone and that she has no right to wear them as she was a widow now.

Today Kajendini is involved with empowering others like her. She said “Now whenever a widow criticizes me for my behaviour and attire, I tell them to stop criticizing others and to stand up to the society that discriminates against them, even if it is something small such as wearing flowers in hair or wearing pottu.”

In Sri Lanka, the programme reached out to nearly 500 participants like Kejendini in Ampara and Batticaloa through a series of interactions between community leaders and widows in these areas.

The interactions focused on awareness on widows’ issues. Sensitization programmes were held with the divisional secretaries, grama sevaka officers and samrudhi officers for many of whom this was a first time to be part of any such gender sensitization interaction. In Batticaloa, four sessions were held with 34 participants and with 44 participants in Ampara.

Surviving Through Heat and Dust

Chadi Bai from Jambola village in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district is an active member and coordinator of mahila mandals or women self-help groups in eight villages. She is also a founder member of the Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti (Women’s Rights Group), fighting for the rights and dignity of widowed and deserted women.

“I believe in myself and my self-respect drives me greatly,” says Chadi. “My children are my sole objective and my survival is my motto.”

She was married at the age of 12 and was deserted by her husband when she was only 18, after having suffered years of abuse. Homeless, with no means of livelihood, she survived many hardships to bring up her three young children.

The turning point came after she became a member of mahila mandal, an organization devoted to provide support to excluded women and serving those in distress. She has now become so popular that she was also elected as a Sarpanch. “ I now take issues of single women to a higher platform,” she says.

Widows Face Neglect

The number of widows living on the streets of Vrindavan alone is estimated to vary from 1,780 to 5,000. Their stories are hardly heard and their tales of survival almost never known. “India has an estimated 35 million widows as per the 2001 Census, and their lives are often mired in poverty, neglect and deprivation. The time has come for us to act and create space for widows in mainstream policy and schemes and not treat them as objects of pity and welfare. Their situation has to be recognized and addressed,” says Anne F. Stenhammer, Regional Programme Director, UN Women South Asia.

A survey done to assess the situation of widows in Vrindavan by the Guild for Service and UN Women revealed that the widows are extremely poor, living well below the poverty line defined by the World Bank and the Planning Commission. Although 70 percent of the women had heard of the Destitute Widow Pension Scheme, only a quarter of all widows received pension.