Widows of VrindavanEver since the 18th century there has been a continuous influx of single women to the holy city of Vrindavan. These women were usually widows who had lost their husbands to old age, disease, alcohol, debt and natural catastrophes like floods and famines besides epidemics of gargantuan proportions.
They are blamed for their own misfortunes and left on their own to fend themselves. Mostly illiterate they are forced to gravitate to holy cities to rely on the piety and generosity of patrons or take to simply begging silently on the streets and near the temples in Vrindavan.
The title of widow seems to have taken on the mantle of a curse for most of the women who can be seen at large on the streets of Vrindavan. An offshoot of the earlier times when the widows were purposely defaced and made unattractive by shaving off their heads and disallowing them to wear anything else but stark white and being bereft of all jewelry whatsoever. The entire effort was to make them unattractive and ugly. The radical thinking in the rural areas was that if widow was seen to be beautiful then there would be chaos as they would catch the eye of the males and this could lead to conflicting situations within the home and village set up. Therefore, the easiest way out was to get rid of the widows – decrease the burden of ownership on their widows or women who have fallen on adverse circumstances.
The age group of these widows ranges from as young as 16 to 19 years and to ages about 75 to 80 year old. There are more than 20,000 widows in the city of Vrindavan. Out these the category of literate and semi-literate widows is almost negligible.
The Sulabh International Initiative was to house at least 800 of these widows in two designated shelters. They had started with the focus of giving back to these women their sense of self esteem which they seemed to have lost somewhere along the way when they had to suffer all forms of ignominious behavior which somehow de-humanized them from the sensitive and caring people they must have been before becoming widows. The Sulabh International initiative along with governmental help began giving to these women a stipend of Rs 2000/- per month to help them take of their minor expenses.
On the continued effort to help these women gain back their self-confidence the Sulabh Initiative focuses on teaching them simple language skills in English and Hindi so that they are enabled to communicate in a language other than their mother tongues. Then there is also the added of incentive of being able to talk to the pilgrims and tourists visiting Vrindavan and having them understand what were the exigencies that made them take this path.
Another initiative being taken up by the Sulabh International is taking up the initiative of skill building programmes to ensure that the women have the ability to work and earn for themselves so as to maintain a reasonable source of income for themselves. The skills being imparted are simple ones like rolling of incense sticks and the stringing of garlands of flowers and beads.
Such form of work towards maintaining the well being of the widows of Vrindavan is path-breaking because it helps them eke out a respectable income for themselves and helps them access the various other social welfare schemes of the government. For example the widows are guaranteed meals under the Antyodaya scheme whereby they can get food grains to cook for themselves. Similarly there are several other bodies that are collecting donations for the widows to help them get an adequate supply of clothes, footwear and also utensils and other necessities.