August 10, 2007

New report reveals that poverty, not devotion, is turning more Indian women into social pariahs

Surina Devi, a matronly 70–year-old in a brown crepe sari, had a so-so life, she says, until her shopkeeper husband died four years ago. For reasons she is unable or loath to explain, the former housewife from a rural village near Patna, in Bihar, was left with "nothing, nothing."

So Ms. Devi did what poor Indian widows have been doing for centuries: She packed a bag and made her way to Vrindavan, a holy town in northern India that is also known as the City of Widows. After a night sleeping on the pavement, she found a bed in an crowded ashram – a house of prayer – for widows, where she says she will spend the rest of her life.

But it's not much of a life. And this town where 16,000 women dress in white – the color of death – is growing, according to a new report.

The survey, published last month by the United Nations Development Fund for Women and the Delhi-based Guild of Service, an Indian charity for widows, illuminates the harsh realities for Vrindavan's widows. It reveals that 40 percent of women here were married before the age of 12. A third were so impoverished that they traveled to Vrindavan without a train ticket.

But perhaps the more startling fact is that despite India's economic ascension and its increasing exposure to global cultural forces, the report offers anecdotal evidence that the number of widows flocking to the town is on the rise.

No comments: