Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Widows Care and Share

Alright, so I know I haven't been very vigilent with updates the last week or so, but the reason is that I lost a handwritten blog about a field visit learning about justice for widows in India. But I just found it and I would really like to share my thoughts and reactions.

Bala Vikasa, the organization who runs our training program, has an extensive women's programme with over 200,000 members spread over the province. About 13,000 of those are widows.

In India widows have a long history of struggle and suffering. Up until a few hundred years ago, the Hindu religion dictated that the wife we burned alongside her husband's dead body. Burned alive. And this ingrained view that women have no right to live without their husband was changed by one man.

Here, all women wear bangles on both wrists, ankle bracelets, the bhindi, flowers in their hair, shiny earrings and nose studs and colourful sarees as a sign of beauty. Now, after the death of the husband, the woman must remove all these things within a week, including having her bangles cut in front of her family and friends. Many people also believe that seeing the face of a widow first thing in the morning is a bad omen. They are also excluded from happy celebrations in the community and are ridiculed if they wear nice sarees.

According to surveys Bala Vikasa has done with all the widows, 30% of widows have committed suicide, and most have attempted before being stopped by their families. While the practice of killing widows has ceased, the spirits of these women are killed regardless through isolation, humiliation and deprivation both socially and economically.

Two saturdays ago, the international participants had the opportunity to witness and be a part of one of a hundred multi-community gatherings for widows committed to change. We were told before arriving that almost one thousand women - about half widows and half community leaders - would be present, but I wasn't prepared for the warm welcome we received right off the bus. We walked to the beating drum along a dirt road through brush, piles of rubber and broken chairs, finally arriving at an open field shaded by a giant open air tent.

Sitting among them cross legged on the ground, I practiced my Telugu greetings. Ellaunaru? Naperu Heather. We were quickly ushered to the front stage to sit overlooking the crowd of seated women. Widows were seated on the left and many wore bangles and the bhindi, comfortable in such an atmosphere. The women leaders in communities were seated on our right, there to support the widows and advocate on their behalf back in their home communities.

The first order of business for this monthly meeting is a survey. Since most of the widows are illiterate, the questions are given orally and answered with eyes shut and arms raised. The widows are asked their age, number of children, education level, how their husbands died and different aspects of their lives now.

Almost all the women live off daily wages, have no savings, and have children to care for. It was pretty shocking to see such young widows as well, even as young as sixteen, as it is still common for very young girls to get married early on in rural areas. The picture below shows how many women have tried committing suicide.

So many women suffering, living for their children. Hearing accounts of those who attempted suicide but were stopped by their relatives or children, was heartbreaking. The women shared stories with each other and us, and we were all crying. Many women leaders spoke up and said they would commit to fighting for justice for these women.

After three hours, when we were asked to speak to the group, I got up the courage to say a few things to them. I told them that their strength is inspiring and that while they see beauty in these objects on their bodies, I think they are all beautiful.

I wish I could have talked with them more individually during our free time, but alas language gets in the way again.

Seriously, wouldn't being able to speak any language be the best super power?

I'm not really sure what to do with what I've learn and seen though, so I'll have to think about it some more.

That's all I have for now, I'll update again in the next day or two.

Sending my love.