05/06/2014 09:08 EDT | Updated 07/06/2014 05:59 EDT

Why Widows Are Not a Priority in the Indian Elections

In this strongly patriarchal culture, married women are seen as belonging to their husbands' families. So with no husband, a wife can lose her status, security, and self; she becomes persona non grata. When a woman in a traditional Hindu family becomes a widow, through no doing of her own, she often falls from grace forever.

The world's biggest election happening over one month in India has caught up all the people of the country -- except for one group. As usual, widows have been excluded.

The UN's Women 2000 report claims that India has the largest number of widows in the world. The Indian census puts the figure at some 34 million. More than half the women over the age of 60 are widows; this is due not only to the slightly longer life expectancy of women but to the traditionally large age difference between husbands and wives. Furthermore, the shadow of widowhood is elongated with the oxymoronic concept of child widows, only possible because it is preceded by the dire reality of child marriages. A study showed that of women aged 20-24, 22.6 per cent were married before age 16, and 2.6 per cent were married before age 13. In such an environment, news stories of eight-year old widows are not improbable. There are apparently some 108,000 widows 10-14 years of age and some 127,000 widows 15-19 years of age. For these women -- or rather girls -- widowhood is not an end-of-life experience but a life-long status.

In this strongly patriarchal culture, married women are seen as belonging to their husbands' families. So with no husband, a wife can lose her status, security, and self; she becomes persona non grata. When a woman in a traditional Hindu family becomes a widow, through no doing of her own, she often falls from grace forever. Her head is shaven, her bangles are removed or broken, she is stripped of her bindi, and she can wear only white. Thought to be inauspicious, she is unwelcome at happy occasions. Often blamed for their husbands' early demise, widows can face mental and physical harassment. They are viewed as unnecessary burdens. Therefore, many are abandoned by their in-laws and sometimes even by their own grownup children. Alone and with nowhere to go, thousands tend to gather for solace in religious cities, one of the most notable being Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

Interestingly, Varanasi has also become a polestar for politicians in these elections. Both Narendra Modi, head of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and Arvind Kejriwal, head of the Aam Admi Party (AAP) are running from Varanasi. Modi is campaigning on his record of development as well as issues of religion. He sees Varanasi as the penultimate Hindu city, heart of the Ganges River, and a confluence of Hindu-Muslim societies. To maximize the political and media spectacle, Kejriwal has decided to take on Modi head to head. Furthermore, there was some talk of the incumbent but enfeebled Congress Party possibly fielding Priyanka or Rahul Gandhi from Varanasi, in large part not to be left out of the limelight.

The leaders of the three major parties are making the most of their links to the underdeveloped sections of the population. Kejriwal has always projected himself as the little man fighting against big corruption. He accepts the necessity of quotas in education and employment for the underprivileged. At the moment, Modi seems larger than his party. One of his major selling points is that he himself is a member of Other Backward Classes (OBCs), the socially and educationally backward classes which include roughly 40 per cent of the country's population. The home constituency of Gandhi family is the small town of Amethi, only 100 kms away from Varanasi, so they claim to understand the people of the land. Also, the Congress has proposed to extend the affirmative action terms offered to the disadvantaged Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes to Muslims.

Despite being focused on Varanasi and fighting over the underprivileged, all major parties have ignored widows. Widows are the new untouchables. No politician has visited them. Not even president of the Congress Party Sonia Gandhi, who herself is a widow. Priyanka Gandhi plans to visit Varanasi next week, but only to go to one of the city's famous temples to offer prayers, no doubt for the victory of her party. While Modi grandly invoked Ma Ganga (Mother Ganges) in his speech in Varanasi, he made no mention of the many real mothers in the city who are alone and homeless. Modi's four proposers for his nomination consisted of two Brahmins, one weaver, and one fisherman: all men; and certainly no widows. It seems BJP's marketing phrase "The good days are coming" does not include widows. Even the AAP, for all its talk of the common man, has left out a most common woman -- the widow.

Widows are not a priority because they are not empowered. Many don't have voters ID cards and their names are not on the voters' list. And despite repeated requests, election officers have not brought forms to the ashrams where many of these abandoned widows live. However, the widows themselves want to vote, feeling it's their one chance to affect change in their otherwise hopeless world.

In 1856, the Hindu Widows Re-Marriage Act was passed to deter the practice of Sati (burning of the widow on her husband's funeral pyre) and allow widows to re-marry. While the laws may have changed, the attitudes are intransigent. The communal feeling persists that the widow is somehow responsible for the death of the husband and therefore it's okay or even deserving for her to suffer. Politicians have done little to break the myth or ease their suffering.

The little help widows receive is largely provided by NGOs. Examples such the Association of Strong Women Alone, Sulabh International, and the War Widows Association work on economically empowering widows by bringing forward cases of property disputes, ensuring receipt of pension payments and child support payments, forming coalitions and cooperatives, giving vocational training, and offering microfinance to help them begin small businesses.

The next step may be to also empower widows politically -- by registering them, getting them voters cards, advocating for their rights, and educating them on what each party can offer them. As a block of 34 million votes, widows would become a section that politicians may finally take notice of. And if they are supported in their stance by the 48 per cent women of India, they would be a force that politicians could not ignore.


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