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India's widows live out sentence of shame, poverty

November 16, 1997
Web posted at: 12:39 p.m. EST (1739 GMT)

VRINDAVAN, India (CNN) -- India's Hindu widows no longer have to throw themselves on the pyres of their dead husbands, but many feel they are forced into poverty and a life alone.

In this holy Hindu city, a place that draws devotees from around the globe, thousands of widows live in shame and poverty. Hindus around the world know Vrindavan for its temples, and as a place to worship the Lord Krishna.

In India, Vrindavan is known as the "city of widows."

Even in these modern times, Hindus frown on widows who remarry. The women are often shunned by their families, blamed by their in-laws for the deaths of their husbands. Many more flee their homes voluntarily, fearing they'll be abused if they stay.

"What do you do in a situation where you know if you stay back in the house, you may be abused sexually?" said Ranjana Kumari, of India's Center for Social Research. "There may be a possibility of you not even surviving, not even getting a meal to eat."

So, by the thousands, they flock to the ashrams of Vrindavan, where they are provided with the daily rations of a cup of rice and 7 cents.

But the rations are only available to widows who attend daily prayers.

"This is the way our lives have become and we accept it," said Surbala, a widow. "I was sad to leave my home but I do not need anything more. I take my strength from God. I do not need money or land because when I die I cannot take them with me."

Kumari says the majority of the widows are ignorant of their basic rights because they come from rural areas where little has changed for centuries. She claims the ashrams have turned agony into an enterprise.

"These ashrams make it a kind of business where they are selling the agony, selling the problems, that the women are going through and trying to make money out of that. I think we are ashamed of such a system," Kumari said.

Women's rights groups are calling for a ban on the city's ashrams. They say the religious institutions raise tens of thousands of dollars a year, yet choose to leave the widows in poverty.

May Devi was 33 when she lost her husband. She has lived in the city's ashrams ever since.

"I came here with nothing. Even on the train, I had to sit on the floor and not on a bench," she said. "I had to sit by the toilet and slept under the bench on the floor. Since I came, I have never returned home. This is my only home now."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 
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