Posted by & filed under Articles, In the Press, Uttar Pradesh.

This Holi will bring some colour to the lives of the Vrindavan widows, living on the margins of society forgotten and abandoned by all.

Nearly 800 widows of the sacred town of Vrindavan, where Lord Krishna is believed to have grown up, will play Holi with flowers on March 24 — symbolising a break from tradition which forbids a widow from wearing colours, among many other things. The celebrations will conclude on the Holi day on March 27.

“In an effort to bring widows to mainstream and help their social assimilation, we have organised several events,” said Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International which has organised the event in a government-run widow home.

Vrindavan is also known as the City of Widows for the sheer number of women who find shelter here after being shunned by their families.

The event, the orgainsers hope, will bring about some change in the mindset. But it will not be easy. “The widows will not use colours but only flowers,” said Pathak.

Sulabh is not only providing stipend to the women in five government-run shelters but is also giving them vocational training and basic education to lead a dignified life instead of begging on the streets.

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Posted by & filed under Articles, Delhi, In the Press, Photos.

Vrindavan, the childhood home of Lord Krishna, is also the abode of his romance with beloved Radha. The city has hundreds of temples and ashrams. The air is filled with chants and mantras. Foreign tourists, in colourful attire, walk through the narrow lanes of the city and greet you with “Radhey Radhey”.

But besides the colour and religious fervour, there is also a sea of “white shadows” in the city. These are the widows of Vrindavan.

After marriage, a woman is supposed to deck herself in colourful attire, wear ornaments and flowers, put sindoor, the symbol of her marriage. But according to old customs which are still followed by many, everything changes once the husband dies and widows are supposed to remain confined within their houses and just perform puja.
The poorest of poor Hindu widows are shunned by the society, as they are seen as a financial drain on their family. Thousands of them lie abandoned in the holy city of Vrindavan.
According to surveys, at least 15,000 widows are living in the city. Most of them are forced to beg on streets for their sustenance.
The Supreme Court recently took strong exception to the manner in which the bodies of widows, who lived in government shelter homes at Vrindavan, were disposed by putting them in gunny bags and dumping them in the Yamuna, due to lack of money for proper cremation. The court expressed serious concern over lack of provision of food as well.
The court had asked National Legal Service Authority (NALSA) to contact the NGO Sulabh International to find out whether they could come forward to help the widows living in four government shelters at Vrindavan. According to Brindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh, things have changed to quite an extent. “Now, the widows are spending their time within ashrams, not begging any more on the streets. They watch TV and chant bhajans within their ashrams. Now the focus will be to impart education and training so that they get back their self-confidence,” said Dr Pathak.

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Posted by & filed under Articles, In the Press, India.

Evaleen Jones, MD is the founder of Child Family Health International (CFHI) and Clinical Faculty at the Stanford University School of Medicine.  Today, on International Women’s Day we feature an experience from her recent visit to CFHI partner sites in India, and a story from a woman she met while there.  Her story  carries the message of community empowerment that CFHI embodies.

January 31.  Today we visited Alwar, a village three hours from Delhi via a bumpy car ride.  CFHI students spend several days at the Sulabh International Social Service Organization, one of CFHI’s local partner organizations.   Sulabh means ‘Easy’ in Hindi.  We stop in front of a small nondescript cement building, beneath a sign that reads  ‘Nai Disha’  (New Direction).  Usha Chaumar is the president of Sulabh and a nicely dressed woman, no more than five feet tall.  She greets us warmly and her eyes shine brightly.  Her royal blue sari accents her brown skin.  We will spend the next hour touring the site and meeting a community of women whose lives dramatically changed course in less than 10 years… the truth and simplicity of her personal story is mindboggling.

(Translated from Hindi)

“I was married when I was ten years old.   I spent the first ten years carrying human waste on my head- collecting it from homes and dumping it far away from the city streets.  No one would come near us- we were compensated for our work by families leaving out leftover scraps of food and sometimes a few rupees were thrown our way.  In 2003, when I was 21, a strange man [Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak] came to our village and asked a group of us if we ‘wanted to change our lives’.  At first I thought he was making fun of me and I hid behind my veil.  But he was persistent and obtained my trust and invited several women like me to go with him to Delhi.  My mother-in-law was skeptical and said “Don’t believe him, nobody came in my 65 years of life to change me- so this is not possible”.  But my husband supported me. We were all so curious and excited- we might never have the chance to drive in a car or visit Delhi ever again.  He convinced 12 of us to join him for lunch in a public area, and then to eat dinner at a Five Star hotel.  Never in our lives had we ever been to a public place, not even the local market or a temple!  Later we found out that he was from the Brahman [caste]- we could not believe someone like him would be kind to us.   

When I went home I wasn’t sure that I could believe that his promise might be true.  But that day, while I was gone, my 2 year old son had been attacked by a large pig in the slum where I lived and it convinced me I needed to take this chance to change my life.  Over the next five years this program has taught all of us about clean water, personal hygiene and how to earn money by making bread and pasta – we make it all by hand to package and sell wholesale.   Since 2003, over 60 women have come to our program [at Sulabh]and learned important skills of embroidery, sewing, beauty care.  Now we have a way to live and support ourselves without scavenging human waste.  My daughter is now 8 years old and she has never seen the life I used to live before Sulabh.”

Each woman who has come to Sulabh relates an incredible journey.  Each CFHI student in the Public Health and Community Medicine Program in Delhi are given opportunities to interact and learn more about Sulabh and how it is run, and personally experience how Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak’s  dream, “To Make India Scavenger Free” can change the lives of an entire community.  Even though scavenging human waste became illegal in India in the late 1970’s and early 80’s it still exists in rural areas to this day.  As a result of this collaboration, more than 60 women have participated in vocational training and live an entirely new way of life in the town of Alwar.  A life that promises ‘ripples of opportunity and hope’ for these women’s children and their children’s children.  What I have seen here today is not just a form of economic emancipation, but a true form of social emancipation, and women's empowerment.

-Evaleen Jones, MD

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Posted by & filed under Articles, In the Press, International.

Still in India latrines are emptied by hand. Dalits do the dirty work, which are also abused as untouchables. An organization helping them to overcome social exclusion – by selling toilets.

"We are human beings, not animals," says Asha Dhamuniya. But she had felt for a long time so the 20-year-old from the town of Tonk supplemented in northern India. She is a Dalit, a defamed as untouchable, is the very bottom of the Indian society. Since she was eleven years old, and her mother had Dhamuniya latrines empty. "I tried to go to class, but the other children tormented me," she says.Even in school she was constantly need cleaning loos.

Today the bright young woman makes money with sewing and embroidery, she goes on to high school and wants to be a teacher.Her life was transformed, as the nonprofit organization Sulabh came to town Tonk. The charity gave the Dalits not only teaching, but also brought a simple toilet system. "To free the untouchables from their position, no need for a God, but a flush toilet," says Sulabh founder Bindeshwar Pathak.

Disgusting purges

There are still a number of latrines in India – despite the fact that the cleaning is prohibited by law since 1993. "The droppings fall from the toilet in a chamber. At this point, the houses have an opening so that we could get out of scrape out the dirt," says Rajni Athwal. She has worked with small plates, brooms and often only with bare hands. "The bucket we have carried away on their heads. When it rained, it dropped down on us," says the 30-year-old from the town of Alwar.

But it was not just the dirty work that went into creating it, but also the stigma. "People do not have the money placed in the hands, but thrown on the floor in front of us." Because they were considered dirty, they were allowed to enter any temple, and the vegetables for merchant not pick and choose.

Now they belong to

But now, after years of education, advocacy and education they were in Alwar and Tonk for society to think Athwal. "People say you are now Madams." And the people that they wanted to not even touch earlier bought her now canned and flatbreads.

But that's just not the case everywhere in India. There were still some 50 000 such latrine cleansers says NGO founder Pathak. 50 years ago there were still 3.5 million people, according to census.That in India today toilets are an issue, was also the Sulabh Sanitation Movement owe, he says. For more than 40 years fighting Pathak, who himself belongs to the highest caste of Brahmins, for human rights and better sanitation. His organization operate 8,000 public toilets and had 1.3 million toilets sold to households, he says proudly.

Toilets with tanks

The toilets, which need not be connected to a sewer cover, always a separate area and two sunken into the ground tank. These are built from the later users, in the state of Punjab from bricks, stones from Rajasthan, from Assam in wood from West Bengal clay."What's in the area is used," says Pathak. The cheapest option – bamboo sticks and jute bags – will cost $ 15 (about eleven euros), the most expensive $ 1,000. All come with about a liter of water per toilet. And can be used five to 40 years.

They used to have when cleaning the latrines always asked God why she was born precisely in this caste, told the 20-year Dhamuniya. They have asked him to come to the next birth to another caste. "Now I think it no longer. I do not care," she says. "I am proud of my caste."

((Translated from German through google)

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Posted by & filed under In the Press, Photos, Uttar Pradesh.

On the eve of International Women's Day Sulabh International, a non-profit organisation, has been working towards improving the conditions of 1,780-odd widows living in government shelters at Vrindavan in India, by providing education, health care, vocational training and stipends

Click HERE or on the gallery above to see images selected by Associate Picture Editor Ivy Lahon







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Posted by & filed under Africa, Articles, In the Press.

For someone born a Muslim and who attended schools that were predominantly Christian and enjoyed being in the choir despite my extra deep voice, I have to say I was very intrigued and excited to have the opportunity to go and experience that Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in India this year.

Kumbh Mela is a mass Hindu pilgrimage where followers of the faith gather at one of the four designated sacred rivers for a dip in the water. It is held every third year at one of the four places by rotation namely, Haridwar, Allahabad, Nasik and Ujjain.

Thus the Kumbh Mela is held at each one of these four locations every twelfth year. Ardh ("Half") Kumbh Mela is held at only two places, Haridwar and Allahabad (Prayag), every sixth year.

The rivers at these four places are the Ganges (Ganga) at Haridwar, the confluence (Sangam) of the Ganges and the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati at Prayag, the Godawari at Nasik, and the Shipra at Ujjain. The word Kumbh in Hindi means pitcher while Mela means fair.

The pilgrimage takes about one and a half months at each of these places where it is believed that drops of nectar fell from the 'Kumbh' carried by gods after the sea was churned.

The festival is billed as the "biggest gathering on earth". There is no scientific method for ascertaining the actual number of pilgrims even approximately and the number of pilgrims in the water on the most auspicious day. Figures vary widely from two to eight million.

In 2001, more than 40 million gathered on the busiest of the 55 days of the pilgrimage. According to administrative estimates, around 70 million people participated on the 45th day of Ardh Kumbh Mela at Prayag in 2007.

The last "Kumbh Mela" held in 2010 in Haridwar was estimated by the authorities to have attracted between 30 and 70 million people a rather varied estimation. This year the Maha Kumbh Mela began on 14 January at Prayag. According to expectations more than 100 million people were expected to attend.

For the record, the next Kumbh Mela will be held at Nashik on the banks of River Godavari in 2015. Amongst the 100 million pilgrims this year there were 100 special ladies who witnessed the event for the very first time in their lives. These ladies are former human scavengers who were liberated by Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of the Sulabh Social Sanitation Movement.

Before their liberation, these ladies who fall under the untouchable caste in the Hindu social system had to fill and carry bucket like toilets with their bare hands. They were not allowed to draw water from wells and had to wear bells around their necks to alert people passing by that they were advancing.

As a result of their status they not allowed to worship in temples and lived on the outskirts of towns. For some strange eason they were even not allowed to spit on the ground.

With the invention of a two pit latrine that incorporated traditional beliefs, much of that has changed but for many the icing on the cake of their freedom was being allowed to perform most important religious ritual of taking a dip in the River Ganges and being accepted by the Hindu upper caste pundits who ended up they dined with them.

Ms Usha Chandra, the honorary President of Sulabh International said that she was beyond words when she learnt that Dr Pathak had arranged for them to attend the Kumbh Mela and that when she entered the water, it was beyond her wildest dream.

"Dr Pathak and the Sulabh International have totally changed our lives and we will forever be grateful. Not only have they liberated us, but they have gone further and brought us to perform this ritual and dine with Hindu priests," she said with her voice full of emotion. Ms Dolly who is pursuing an undergraduate degree said that she is the first person in her clan to perform the Kumbh Mela.

"I consider myself very lucky to be here. Such rituals are usually done by the elderly and so for someone of my age to come and perform is nothing short of a miracle and I consider Dr Pathak as God sent," she said. The presence of the 100 ladies at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad caught the attention of people international and police officers.

If I was ever allowed to describe what it must have felt for the 100 ladies to walk the 500 meters from their campsite to the Holy River. After centuries of discrimination, they took and washed all the dirt away.

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Posted by & filed under Articles, In the Press, International.

Welfare organisation aims to restore dignity of women living in city’s shelters who often have to beg for a living

Vrindavan: Hundreds of widows of Vrindavan, who have lived a life of penury, earning a meagre 5 rupees each day for singing early-morning bhajans at temples here, now have a life of dignity, thanks to non-governmental organisation Sulabh Interntional.

Sulabh, a leading campaigner for sanitation, has decided to take care of the basic needs of the Vrindavan widows, from food to healthcare.

Only six months ago, many widows, in their traditional white cotton saris, could be seen moving from temple to temple with begging bowls, chanting “Radhe, Radhe”. Poor and malnourished, many of these women in the holy city of Lord Krishna were just skin and bone.

Things are changing, though, in a place that has earned a dubious reputation as a City of Widows.

“These days, you won’t find old women at every nook and corner, except the few who cannot shake off old habits. Now, the widows spend their time in ashrams, no more begging on the streets. They watch TV and chant bhajans within their ashrams, where they are provided basic amenities,” a resident of the city and music maestro Acharya Jaimini told IANS.

The change is thanks to the initiatives of Sulabh International, whose founder, Bindeshwar Pathak said Sunday that more than 800 widows have registered at the two government shelter homes; each of them will be given Rs.2,000 per month, for basic needs.

The initiative comes in the wake of a Supreme Court order of August 2012.

Justices D.K. Jain and Madan B. Lokur had directed the Uttar Pradesh government in August last year to ensure at least proper cremation and last rites for the ‘Vrindavan widows’, in keeping with their religious beliefs.

The bench also issued directions that the widows receive immediate relief, including proper food, regular visits from doctors of the Mathura civil hospital, and homes with adequate sanitation.

The apex court directed the centre to play a proactive role in the matter.

The apex court had suggested that International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKON) and NGO Sulabh International could be contacted to extend help to the 1,790-odd poor widows living in deplorable conditions in the four government shelters of Vrindavan.

“The idea is to ensure that widows living in the government-run shelters in Vrindavan should not be forced to beg or go to bed hungry,” Bindeshwar Pathak told IANS, adding that Sulabh had decided that a sum of Rs.2,000 would be given to each of these widows a month.

The money would be paid by Sulabh, which has been paying the widows Rs.1,000 each per month since last year.

The apex court had expressed shock that the bodies of two widows who had died at the government homes were chopped and the pieces put into gunny bags for disposal in the Yamuna, on the plea that there were inadequate funds for proper cremation rites.

Sulabh has also handed over five well-equipped ambulances for the exclusive use of the widows. The NGO has gifted the Vrindavan widow shelter homes medical equipment and television sets too.

The NGO also plans an education programme to restore the women’s confidence. The widows have started learning Hindi, English and Bengali. The four widows who died at these homes since the NGO began its initiatives here last year were accorded final rites in accordance with Hindu custom.

Sulabh has also donated 50 sewing machines, and some women have begun to use these to earn a living. Besides, they also make Agarbatti (incense sticks) and flower garlands for sale.

Sulabh is renowned for freeing large numbers of people from the scourge of lifting night soil. “That experience came handy here,” the 70-year-old Pathak, who launched Sulabh decades ago, said, explaining that people freed from toiling with night soil had been rehabilitated in some measure through education and vocational training.

“We are using our vast experience here in Vrindaban and want to see that the widows no longer live as an unwanted burden on the society,” Pathak said.

Although Sulabh has taken up the initiative without much support, Pathak says: “We will approach the central as well as state governments and big corporate houses for help. The idea is to ensure a dignified life to the widows.”

(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at


Vrindavan Feb 24 (IANS) Hundreds of widows of Vrindavan, who have lived a life of penury, earning a meagre 5 rupees each day for singing early-morning bhajans at temples here, now have a life of dignity, thanks to non-governmental organisation Sulabh Interntional.

Indo-Asian News Service

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