Campaign against Widowhood launched on the bank of Ganga

 

w-o-v-1The mighty Ganga flowing in usual turbulence by the Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi was a divine witness on the morning of April 28, when the glow of the rising sun bathed the river and its neighbouring settlements, to the Sulabh resolve to mitigate the suffering of widows abandoned by their near and dear ones for long in the city described in scriptures as one of the holiest places in India.

 

w-o-v-2Adopting hundreds of widows of Varanasi, Sulabh International launched on that day its second campaign against the age-old tradition of “widowhood” in the country in the presence of hundreds of widows on the bank of the holy Ganga. The Sulabh Founder, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, launching the campaign proposed a draft Bill to be presented before Parliament for widows’ protection, welfare and maintenance. Dr. Pathak said that the draft Bill would deal with measures to look after the welfare of the neglected, abandoned and destitute widows. On the occasion the Sulabh Founder adopted around 150 neglected widows of Varanasi by ensuring ` 2000 monthly dole to each of them, besides a series of other welfare measures.

Government Must Act

w-o-v-3Taking a cue from a similar effort made by a Member of Parliament in 2007, Dr. Pathak said, “I strongly feel that time has come for the government to enact a law for the welfare of widows.”

He said, keeping in mind his own experiences in this field as well as the enormous sufferings and hardships the widows in India continue to face he proposed to hand over a copy of the draft Bill to the Lok Sabha Speaker, Hon’ble Mrs. Meira Kumar, who has evinced keen interest in the welfare of the widows and wants their plight to be improved.

He recalled that based on the encouragement by the Hon’ble Supreme Court through the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) Sulabh took up the programme for improving the plight of the widows of Vrindavan. The programme has now been going on for more than 9 months and “as of today we are giving Rs. 2,000 per month per widow for their food etc.” Adequate arrangements have also been made to give them education in three media – Hindi, Bangla and English – for which teachers have been appointed. They are also being provided vocational training for making garlands, preparing incense sticks, sewing and embroidery work, he said. Five fully equipped ambulances have been provided and stationed in the Ashrayas for providing timely and adequate medical attention and if needed to carry bodies for proper cremation with full rites and rituals. Regular medical check-ups for their eyes and teeth are also being taken care of. Now the widows of Vrindavan are spending their lives happily. “We now want to work for improving the living conditions of widows of the Holy city of Varanasi also”, Dr. Pathak said.

Relief to Varanasi Widows

 

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In Varanasi, the widows are living scattered in different Ashrams as well as in private dwellings. Many of them resort to begging on the streets. “First, I will have to make a survey of the widows who need our services and help. Thereafter we will take care of all of them as is being done in Vrindavan”, said Dr. Pathak.

“We have visited the Durga Kund Ashram, Birla Ashram, Nepali Mandir and the Sarnath-based Ashram. There are around 150 widows in different Ashrams and we have already given them Rs. 2,000 each. They will get it every month for spending on food and other necessities. We have also provided two fully equipped ambulances with medical supplies. This will also help to take them to the hospital for treatment and other needs. We have already engaged teachers for them and within a week they will start teaching them”, Dr. Pathak said.

The ambulances were flagged off from the Dashashwamedh Ghat by Mr. Pranjal Yadav, District Magistrate of Varanasi, who had been invited to the Sulabh congregation, and Dr. Pathak himself. One ambulance would be attached to the Widow Ashram near Sanchi and the other to the Durga Kund Ashram. Mr. Yadav also released a well brought out booklet containing life stories and struggles of nearly a dozen widows whom Dr. Pathak and Sulabh volunteers had interviewed. Just as is the case in Vrindavan, the Sulabh Founder has made arrangements for setting up a special Sulabh Office for their monthly payments and other assistance. Sulabh has distributed sarees and provided a refrigerator and television sets with dish antenna to enable them to watch different religious channels. “We will continue to help the widows of Varanasi to enable them to live with dignity just like those in Vrindavan”, said Dr. Pathak.

Dr. Pathak said his primary concern was to change the mindset, behaviour and attitude of the people towards the widows in general. Widows after death of their husbands faced humiliation and insult from the family, and society which often treated the widowhood inauspicious. Widows are asked not to be present at any of the auspicious function in the family. They are also not supposed to wear coloured sarees and ornaments and wear only white sarees. They cannot take garlic, onion and meat. “So, my idea is to convene a National Seminar in the next couple of months on the topic ‘Life Imprisonment Without Offence: Destiny of Widows in India’ to discuss the conditions of the widows in the country and also how to change the attitude of the people towards widows, who are their mothers, sisters, aunties and so on and so forth”, he said.

Dr. Pathak added: “In our country, there are millions of such unfortunate women who lose their husbands untimely, and become widows. Most of them are old, infirm, disabled and have no source of livelihood. Their position becomes miserable if they have dependent children. When a widow does not have any permanent source of income or livelihood, she is driven out of her in-law’s home or even from her parental home. Many such widows can be seen begging in the streets and public places. They are termed as witches and tortured even by their own kith and kin and others. They are treated as bad and unholy women by the society.

“Ours is a welfare State. It is the foremost duty of the State to initiate welfare measures, protect them and provide maintenance to them so that they can live with dignity and honour”.

Visit to Widow Ashrams

w-o-v-5On April 27 accompanied by Sulabh staff, the Sulabh Founder went round of various widow Ashrams. First, he went to Sankatmochan Temple and met five widows who were seen begging outside. Then he proceeded with his team to the Birla Ashram where he met 11 widows. Thereafter he went to the Nepali Mandir and then the Durga Kund Ashram, where he met 17 widows.

Dr. Pathak was surprised to find a weak and infirm widow, Sita Devi, who was from Bihar. She suffered from gout and was unable even to move and open the door of her dwelling. She couldn’t invite him in for there was hardly any space for two people to sit there. She had been at the receiving end since the age of 12 and could hardly even smile when Dr. Pathak and his team met her. She was originally a resident of Salmanpur village in Madhubani district of Bihar. She was married to Vishwanath Jha, 25, a factory worker in Calcutta, at the age of 10. She did not know even the meaning of marriage. When she was 12 her husband turned up and said he would like to take her away to her in-law’s house. “We saw each other, but did not exchange any word. My husband went back to Calcutta, saying he would return soon. But soon after I heard he had passed away”. Her mother-in-law came to their house. “I was terribly moved. I started weeping when she said she wanted to take me away with her. I was surprised to find women in my in-law’s house very indifferent and rather callous. Nobody seemed to care for me”, said Sita Devi. When she returned to her parents’ house, her father passed away. Her father-in-law was already dead. Her brother-in-law who got job in the same factory where her husband worked got the entire family land transferred to his name, giving her not even a shred from the family inheritance. She really didn’t know where to go.

w-o-v-6Along with her widowed mother, she came over to Varanasi. But finding no Ashram willing to take them, they rented a small room. Working as maids in different houses, they passed their days. But after some time her mother also passed away. Now, Sita Devi is 64, Guthia victim, and unable to move about and work anywhere. She begged for help as she was getting only Rs. 300 per month as old-age assistance from the government. Her medicines alone cost her Rs. 500 per month”.

The Sulabh team met another old lady, who probably hailed from Varanasi or Daltonganj, Jharkhand. She was angry and refused to answer questions about her personal life. She lives in a leprosy Ashram near Sankatmochan Temple in Varanasi. This 75-year-old lady, Panna Devi, is a resident of Raja Talab, Varanasi as per the records of the Ashram, but she claimed she was from Daltonganj.

Her husband died when she was just 30 years old. They had only one son. Once she had fallen from the roof breaking her both legs. Her head injury made her blind in one eye. Asked “How did you get hurt on your head”, she replied “Why should I tell you, would you help in getting my eye treated? It has already been one month; no one is here to help me. My whole body is aching”. On being told, “Mataji, we will provide you medicine”, she replied, “I don’t need your medicine. One day, I have to die, what will I do after eating your medicine”?

Tara Amma, 65, belongs to the ‘Nat’ community and is wife of late Md. Naseerullah. Every day she sits at the gate of Sankatmochan Temple begging for money to meet her day-to-day expenses. She earns about Rs. 80 daily, while on Saturdays and Tuesdays, her collection reaches up to Rs. 100. Her husband Md. Naseerullah was a snake charmer and he used to earn a good amount by showing snakes to tourists. His main base was Qila Khottar. She was very happy with her son Raj Kapoor. While looking at the sky she said, “After death of my husband my condition has worsened”.

Campaign against Widowhood launched on the bank of Ganga

w-o-v-7Naseerullah fell ill and he died 12 years ago. Raj Kapoor was just 15 years old at that time. She started selling bangles going door-todoor. After getting her son married to Radha she thought of living a peaceful life but due to poor health her bangle selling business came to an end. She loved her son but his wife illtreated her and did not look after her well. The result was that she had to start begging.
(Hearing such tales of woes Dr. Pathak was terribly upset and resolved to do whatever he could for the hapless widows).