"The greatest of all miseries, the culmination of the enormities of custom, is the forcible shaving of a Brahmana and other high caste widows. The cruel and pernicious custom is horrid beyond conception. (The widow) is simply helpless; she must submit to that cruel inhuman operation. She often faints, she is dumb-founded, tears flow in a flood... but nobody cares..."
This is a voice from the past, a quotation taken from a set of essays written in 1910 by the inmates at the Widows' Home in Pune. The historical cruelties perpetrated on the hapless Hindu widow are well-documented. They have been the stuff of legends and legislation. What is less known is that even in contemporary India, women, although they may not have to undergo the barbarism of forcible tonsure, continue to suffer grievously in innumerable ways. Equally ignored are widows in other parts of the world. They figure among the most deprived sections of society, with little legal protections and few safety nets, whether they live in Syria or Somalia, Ireland, Canada or the United States.
Recently, World Public Opinion, an international research organization, conducted a global survey on the treatment meted out to widows and divorced women in 17 countries, including India, China, USA, Indonesia, Nigeria and Russia. It was commissioned by the UK-based Loomba Trust, which has been campaigning for an international widow's day to highlight an issue that the world has largely ignored.
The findings of the survey only confirmed the widespread perception that widows and divorced women in the 21st century get a worse deal than other women do. Only in two countries did the majority say that there is no discrimination of this kind - Ukraine (53 per cent) and Indonesia (54 per cent). In 12 of the countries polled, about four in 10 believe that there is some or a great deal of discrimination against widows and divorced women. Just 28 per cent across the countries polled say there is no discrimination against widows, while 63 per cent maintain that there is a little, some or a great deal of such bias. Observed Steven Kull, director of World Public Opinion.org after the data came in, "Discrimination against widows and divorced women appears to be a phenomenon of many countries, not just some traditional cultures."
Perceptions of the extent of discrimination vary widely. South Korea, for example, reported the largest group (81 per cent) who believe that widows are mistreated. This reality seems to have nudged South Korea's lawmakers into enacting legal reform. Protective legislation followed the 2005 high court verdict granting women the right to claim an equal share in jointly-owned family property for the first time in the country's history. In China, 54 per cent see widows as discriminated against and the Chinese government has, since the 1990s, been introducing a series of legal reforms on this score. Today, inheritance laws in China guarantee the inheritance rights of widows, although - as the survey revealed - the traditional stigma attached to them continues to persist.
Egypt, where 48 per cent believe that widows are mistreated, has been the focus of criticism from Human Rights Watch for its gender unfriendly legal framework. Not only do men and women need to conform to differing forms of initiating divorce, women are also denied property rights to their marital homes unless they have a specific legal title.
India presents a curious case. Over the years there have been a great deal of attempts by social reformers to address the sorry plight of widows in the country and, in fact, social and legal reform for much of the 19th and 20th century was centered on the Indian widow. However, enforcement of the laws remains a huge challenge. A clue as to why this is so may lie in an interesting trend that surfaces in the World Public Opinion poll: the percentage of Indians recognizing that widows are discriminated against is low - only 42 per cent. This, despite widespread evidence of structural inequalities and systemic biases directed against widows in Indian society.
Many of these cruelties and biases are ordained by religious belief and social practice. The situation of the deserted widows of Varanasi is a prime example. These unfortunate women often dumped there by families unwilling to keep them, spend four hours chanting religious mantras and get a cupful of rice and a few rupees for their efforts.
It was this reality, in fact, that prompted Raj Loomba, the UK-based clothing industry magnate, to start campaigning on the issue from 1995. He observed that the real problem in India is that when a husband dies, a woman is regarded by her marital family and society in general as "inauspicious", a burden, and they begin to ostracize her. Loomba recalls, "Take my own mother. She was only 37 when she was widowed. Her social profile changed completely with that. Overnight, she was asked to take off her bangles. Her 'koka' (a traditional nose stud) was also removed. At my wedding ceremony, she was not allowed to sit at the marriage 'mandap' because she was regarded as inauspicious. I know of instances where widows were treated even more cruelly - forced to marry, against their will, the younger brother in the husband's family; robbed of their inheritance rights; sent back to their parental homes or even killed."
The treatment accorded to Loomba's mother caused him to perceive the issue in a broader context. "Today, in Iraq alone we are generating 100 widows every day. Wherever there are conflicts, there are widows, many of whom are refugees - and let us remember that the world is full of conflicts today. In Africa, the AIDS epidemic is leaving thousands of women widowed and their husbands' families will dispossess them of their assets so that they are left destitute. Even in prosperous countries like Finland, Germany and France, widows live in greatly straitened circumstances, surviving for the most part on modest pensions. There are an estimated 100 million widows in the world, with at least 25 million in India alone, and they in turn are responsible for the lives of at least three or four others, including children and dependents."
This, Loomba estimates, would make up about half-a-billion lives that are affected, either directly or indirectly, by the fact that widows today continue to lack both rights and recognition. "One would have thought that the plight of an estimated half-a-billion human beings would have invited exemplary attention and global redressal but that, unfortunately, is not the case," he comments.
Loomba would like the UN to consider designating a special day for widows. As he puts it, "It will make a difference. There will at least be one day when the world would pause to think of those innumerable faceless, nameless women who are forced to lead severely disadvantaged lives for no fault of their own. And then, perhaps, they would finally become the focus of some much-needed policy-making."