In a primitive village in India, she sits dressed in white. Her head is shorn, and she is not allowed to be seen in public. She is forced to eat after everyone else has eaten, forced to clean the ground on which she sits. She is a pariah, an outcast. She isn’t allowed to speak, or participate in anything in society. Her decisions count for nothing, and festivities imply that she should remain far away, for she is an omen, a premonition, a symbol of doom.
In Nigeria, she is an animal. She is a beast, a creature that deserves no dignity, that deserves no respect and that has no place in society. She is forced to struggle for an ordinary living, moving from day to day wondering where her next meal will come from.
In Mozambique, she is a witch. A witch who killed her husband, a woman who bodes doom and witchcraft, an anthropomorphic entity that represents evil, a being with the proclivity for Satanic activities.
In Bangladesh, she is thrown out of her house and left devoid of shelter, food or clothing. She lives her life in tattered clothing, without any food, without anything that would assure a life of decent standards.
In Kenya, she is forced to bear the blame for her husband’s death- despite the fact that he was a philanderer, despite the fact that he slept with several, several women, despite the fact that he died of AIDS. She is an outcast, an evil force.
Who are these women?
Widows, that’s who.
Most widows, world over, face two common problems- forced loss of a social status, and a consequent loss of economic standing. Sadly, there is no social segment that is worse off owing to the sin of omission than widows. Widows are conspicuous by their absence in the statistical data of developing countries, ignored in the reams of papers that speak of concerns that affect women. Owing to the ascribed notion that a woman is to be married, and must stay married - the loss of a spouse and the subsequent status of widowhood marks women with stigma and forces them to live a life under the rubric of social stereotyping. Consequently, these women are vulnerable to challenges in society. Conventional views and presumptions preclude everything else when it comes to widows.
As much as culture may differ from place to place, the fact that every cultural setting has rules that specifically govern women cannot be denied. The first place where exploitation occurs is within the confines of the home, where family members ruthlessly decide to dictate the trajectory of the lives for widows. Legal protection is hardly thought of- for factors such as illiteracy and fear of the wrath they might incur for having unleashed the power of law against their family, as also for factors such as sheer institutionalized difficulties consequent to marginalization.
As a consequence, therefore, myriads of the world’s widows suffer and live lives under extreme poverty, ostracism, violence, homelessness, ill health and discrimination in law and custom.
Domestic laws in several countries are not altogether silent, and neither is International Law. But the ground reality portends the fact that there are immense obstacles that hinder any prospect of making these instruments relevant to the realities of women’s lives. A pragmatic approach that would target the needs of women by ensuring awareness would be a good start. But it doesn’t help anything if only women are to be inculcated with awareness. Families, societies and every element that constitutes policy making authorities in the government should be taught to understand that widowhood does not detract a woman from being a human being, a very normal human being entitled to the very same rights as anyone else.
Written by Kirthi Gita Jayakumar