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Women in India 1/16/16
January 16, 2016

Women, Widows and Poverty in India


Written by Klevisa Kovajaci ~ 16 January 2016

In December 2015 and January 2016, I was fortunate and privileged to make a humbling trip to India with the organization that I have long been involved with, Montage Imitative, a student group from my alma mater Fairfield University, and of course our hosting partner organization, the Guild for Service. We stayed in the cities of New Delhi, Vrindavan, Agra, and Jaipur, in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Rajasthan.

The purpose of these travels was an immersion and service trip into the main issues facing India today, particularly gender equality. We embarked on field visits to NGOs, poor villages and schools, engaged in discussions with some of the most inspirational women and men in policy and grassroots development work. We interacted and worked with women and children in adopted villages, and the widows of Ma Dham shelter. As such, we got a glimpse of the real India beyond the numbers and claims of “economic boom.” This gathering of insights into the major challenges in India today is of particular interest to me, as a graduate student of International Development. 

Sharing this journey and experience with my colleagues from Montage Initiative and Fairfield University has been a privilege. It is rare to be able to experience one of the most amazing countries in the world, some of the most beautiful sites on earth, and tackle the world's greatest challenges like gender equality - all with your close friends by your side. Yet, the presence of us 14 or so Western, young, light-skinned females in such a heavily patriarchal society, turned the heads of nearly every male around.   

Most importantly, meeting the people and getting a glimpse into their lives was humbling and flattering. While India faces unprecedented levels of poverty, the diverse people of India – from the children to the elderly women - show true strength, spirit, energy, and vitality that inspires and awes me. The dignity, care, and respect that the people who I met is gratifying. These writings are the culmination of my experiences, thoughts, and observations of the scenes and faces encountered in India.   



Introduction to India 

Walking through the streets open-air markets in Delhi India, one is bombarded by sights, sounds, and smells - an overbearing feast for all senses. The colors of the clothes in the markets, the smell of the hot fried foods on the streets, the shouting of sellers inviting customers, the roaming dogs (or undisturbed cows in the case of Vrindavan) all creates a unique sensation of embracing the chaos. 

Passing the central mall complex of Delhi, the lights of the mall read Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and other names forbidding to anyone below the 0.1% of income in India. The main private malls, are on high level of security, due to threat of safety and terrorism. 

Next door a few meters away lie shanty shacks with rudimentary structures of wooden or metal sheets that serve as shelter for the homeless. But these huts are not isolated to certain areas; they are everywhere. Indeed, traveling for hours between cities, one sees mainly these poor slums of temporary shelters consisting of cardboard, wood, or metal sheets (I think), just enough to literally keep a roof over one’s head. Yet in major cities like Delhi, many sleep on the streets and burn garbage to keep warm at night.  

The colossal scale of the raw poverty in India is stupefying and paralyzing. The struggle for survival is raw and reflected clearly in almost every sight and contact. It is overwhelming, and I imagine that is what Atlas must have felt like when carrying the globe  on his back.  

India, known as a land of contradictions, has it all. One witnesses the highest level of affluence to the most despairing poverty; rapid progress next to languid stagnation. In a modern city atmosphere, the buildings of booming technology, banking, and engineering industries, filled with busybodies and high stress levels, loom over homeless beggars and shantytowns below.  In one scene one sees life and death side by side: crowds of people walking by dead animals on the ground, or by lactating dogs feeding their puppies. The majestic Taj Mahal and other historical monuments of the Mughal empire and earlier civilizations loom high and proud, attracting millions of tourists, most of which are Indian; merely meters away are slums on dirt. One views the constrictions of women in daily life to the private sphere, yet their public sexual exploitation in music videos and beyond. The largest democracy on Earth has a vibrant civil society, although it suffers some of the biggest assaults on civil rights. India is indeed in full transition. 


Experiencing Patriarchy  

India is a strongly patriarchal society, of different degrees depending on the level of development of individual states, cities, and regions. Going around to the cities of Vrindavan, Delhi, Agra, and Japiur, virtually every public space in India, one thing stands out to me; almost everyone outside is male. Almost no women walk on the streets, go grocery shopping, or drive. In many (or rather most) parts of India, women are largely confined to the private domain and discouraged from being out in public. Of course, this is changing, and now there are more and more women outside, and more women drivers. The few female drivers in Delhi appeared inspirational and brave simply for being out. The number of girls at universities is also on the rise. 


What a spectacle we made as a group of 14 non-native women in our twenties and one gentleman (thanks Alvin!), attracting much attention everywhere we went. Almost all the men passing by or who caught a glimpse stared intently and unabashedly as we walked on the streets, and peered at us even when we were inside the bus vehicle. Many took photos or videos of us without asking, like paparazzi. A few asked to take photos or selfies - I made sure to firmly say no when asked to take photos with random men. Visual and psychological objectification at its highest, all of my colleagues and I were outraged. 

Having been warned of this and learning from previous experience, I wired my mentality not to pay it attention or to notice – my best coping mechanism to not let the overbearing stares and crass behavior affect me. But the second that I snap out of that mode, I see the photos, stares of questionable motives everywhere, and I was certainly not the only female to feel exposed, scrutinized, and utilized.  

Furthermore, we were warned many times not to go out in the streets of Delhi past 8pm, even in a large group as we were. It was not safe to walk around anywhere alone, regardless of time of day, but especially so at night, and especially not during New Year’s Eve. This is what lack of freedom means, - to not be able to go out alone, or late at night, or to not be able to go out period. It means to be judged and utilized for every stranger’s eye pleasure, while individuality and dignity feels lost. My friends and I caught a mere glimpse of what women and girls suffer as a lack of freedom in a highly patriarchal society. 

The Status of Women and Girls 

The status of women and girls in India is low, as it in most developing countries and even developed countries. Women’s treatment as second-class citizens manifests itself in the form of child marriage, female infanticide, property rights, widow abuse, and more. Women and girls are generally discouraged by their families and society from being seen in the public sphere. Rather they are confined to the home behind closed doors where they  cook, clean, take care of the family, and cater to their husbands’ wants with little freedom of choice. Behind closed doors they are also often subject to abuse by the hands of their husbands or male relatives. Indeed women often do not have the right to their body, such as the right to make decisions about when and how many children to have. Often, this choice rests solely with the husband.  

Patriarchy in India has also caused one of the most skewed gender ratios at about 918 females for every 1000 males. This originates from a society that valorizes males to the detriment of females. Families prefer to have male babies instead of female babies, sometimes resorting to female infanticide to abort their female babies in hopes of having a male baby later. The majority of the factors leading to the skewing of the gender ratio occur during the pre-natal phase of a baby to about age 5. If the female baby survives age 5, then it is most likely that she will continue living. Thus today there remains the question of the “missing girls” who were never born or died as infants.  

But, the preferential treatment of males over females continues throughout childhood. Because there are not enough government schools, families who have more resources sometimes opt to take their children to private schools which cost some money. Families prefer to send boys to school, and sacrifice education for girls so that the girls may help out with chores. This was quite evident in the schools of the adopted villages and NGOs that we visited. In almost every classroom there was a dearth of girls.  

The discrimination against girls and women only intensifies during adolescence and adulthood. While the practice of child marriage is now banned in India, it still occurs in the least developed parts of India and especially the northern states like Rajasthan and Haryana. And while the practice of dowry has ended, it continues in some of the same areas – a girl’s family pays money to the future husband’s family – which rarely but scandalously resulted in bride burnings, in which the husband’s family killed the new bride in order to remarry and obtain another dowry. Now the government of India has put in law provisions that discourage such a practice by holding the husband’s family responsible for the death of a wife within 7 years of the marriage, by default.  

Next, sexual harassment is a massive problem in India. The undermining term of  “Eve teasing” is sexual harassment of girls and women in the form of groping, verbal harassment in public spaces such as the streets or public transportation. Delhi has the highest rate of rape in the world, including gang rapes. 

In a society with such a skewed gender ratio, the dearth of girls has had major repercussions – from an increase in the rate of violence by men, to human trafficking and increased prostitution and “importation” of women. Yet, it is also helping to break some of the barriers of the cast system as people are now forced to intermarry between castes, seeing as how there are few women available.  

Several tragic events have set into motion turning the wheel of change. One of the most recent events, the 2012 Delhi rape case flung the country into outrage as masses of people occupied the gates of India in Delhi, and protested in cities throughout the country to demand government action to protect victims and bring perpetrators to justice. Likewise the 1992 gang rape case of Bhanwari Devi elicited a similar reaction. 

The women’s movement is alive and well trying to influence change. As a result of all these efforts and recent events, the Indian government put into place several laws and even amended its constitution to offer more protection and rights for women, such as  amendments 73 and 74 which set a quota for maintaining at least 33% women in local governance assemblies. It also enacted the Sexual Harassment Act of 2013, and made changes to inheritance in property laws, dowry, child marriage, and more in favor of women. 

Widows, and Poverty 

Rolling into Ma Dham shelter was one of the most emotional and memorable moments of the trip. Under the clear sky and bursting sun of midday, the sheltered widows lined up to greet us with flower necklaces in their hands. As we got off the bus, they put wreaths of marigolds around our necks and the red tikka on our forehead as is the custom when welcoming guests into Indian homes. They bowed, saying “Rather Radhe” – the main greeting in the holy city of Vrindavan, in honor of the Hindu god Krishna. 

Blessed and humbled by the welcome, we met the women and listened to their stories. The widows ranged from as young as in their twenties to as old as over their 80s. Some of them had been in the shelter for a few weeks, others for decades. They came from many different backgrounds and loved to share about their families and lives. One lady in particular had been a chemistry professor and came from a family of chemists. Despite language barriers, we connected as women with a common humanity.  

There is no generalizing “women” into a homogenous group in India, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. There are poor marginalized women in more rural areas, and some well-educated and empowered women in the city. But widows suffer triple marginalization: as women, poor people, and widows. When their husband dies in conflict situations (as is the case of state and militant husbands in Kashmir), a woman is left with no money or income. These are known as “war widows,” but there are all kinds of widows in India. For instance, with looming debt from purchasing seeds of GMO companies like Monsanto, several farmers are committing suicide, leaving behind “farmer widows.” The widow must then take care of her household and children, carrying on in destitution by working the fields in what is known as the “feminization of labor.” 

Indeed women are at the center of poverty, as about 70% of the world’s poor are women. Women suffer poverty more frequently than men, and at more extreme levels. Furthermore, women work several full time jobs in labor, usually the informal sector, and then in domestic work, taking care of all the family’s dependents. This “feminization of poverty” is especially in the case of single-parent homes run by females, which earn the lowest incomes. This poverty is passed on between generations if girls or women are married at a young age to much older men and widowed early on, as they become stuck in the cycle of poverty. Indeed, the lack of education and poverty of women is a defining factor and the key to the overall poverty and development of India. 

There are about 46.5 million widows in India. 75% of women-run households are headed by widows.  A widowed woman is considered bad lack in Indian culture, and she is thought to be the indirect cause of the death of her husband.  Her family often shuns or even abandons her. Indian thought states that in childhood, a girl is taken care of by her father, in marriage by her husband, in old age by her son. A widowed woman is thus considered “masterless” and therefore is at the mercy of the remaining family, such as the brother in law, who often forces her into a second marriage with him in order to maintain the property that she would otherwise inherit from the death of her husband. Widowed women may not wear color or jewelry or decorate themselves in any way, according to tradition. In the past, they were also made to shave their heads to remove any sign of what may be seen as beauty or decoration. In one of the most notorious practices of “sati” widowed women were pressured to kill themselves at the funeral pyre of their dead husband. This practice is now banned in India.  

Abandoned by their families, many widowed women are forced to leave their home and travel to the holy city of Vridavan where they go to live out their last years in the hope of redemption and salvation. There are thousands of widows in the city of Vrindavan, Varanasi, and other areas in India. There are also many shelters, but never quite enough to house and protect them all. 

Ma Dham is therefore a sanctuary for these women. There they do activities like skill building, physical exercise like yoga, visits to the city, and generally enjoy the company of  one another in the beautiful compounds of the shelter. Some participate in computer courses and learn how to make crafts with their hands that they sell and earn a livelihood from. 

Throughout our stay in the Guild for Service’s Ma Dham shelter, we got to bond with the women through various activities, all the while getting to know them better. One of my favorite events was a bonfire, where the widows, and our group sang and danced in the night. We even managed to get the male staff up and dancing!  

Ma Dham which means “my home” really felt like a home. Even the staff was like family, especially the sweet soul Urmila. Originally from Virndavan, she works at the Guild for service, and was one of the most positive influences, always cheering everyone up, serving delicious tea, and sharing her culture with us, including teaching us how to write in Sanskrit! The staff at the Guild of Service was very kind and welcoming to us. I made friends with the lovely young women Nadya and Mavra from Kashmir, and of course our valuable and most trusted intern, Jessica. As our time at Ma Dham drew to a close, we waved in a bittersweet goodbye or maybe see you later. I am certain that some of us will be back to visit again someday. 


Women’s Movement, Advocacy and Grassroots Work  

India is also filled with many empowered women catalyzing change for gender equality. The leaders and staff of the Guild for Service, under the direction of the legendary Dr. Mohini Giri, champion for women’s rights and widows, are the epitome of change makers. The board members of the Guild for Service, such as Dr. Meera Khanna, work tirelessly on advocacy and grassroots work. Advocacy acts on the level of influencing, changing, and even creating policy at the local, national, or even international level. The Guild for Service works on all levels including in the international arena through the UN.  

Likewise, the women working in social service NGOs for their fellow women are other examples – such as the organizations All Indian Women’s Conference and Jagori, whose headquarters we visited to meet and discuss with their leaders. The organizations run gender service centers that offer healthcare services and information, make women aware of their rights under Indian law, provide support in the cases of domestic violence, train and award women diplomas in skills so that they may obtain jobs, and more. 

Even in the most patriarchal states of India, like Rajasthan, empowered and elite women have risen and led change from the top down. But change does not have to be only from those of the highest social class. The empowered women in the adopted villages spoke loudly and clearly, communicating their ideas and speaking their minds at meetings. They joked, exchanged experiences with us, and brought us to join them in song and dance in celebration of life. The young women of the Jesus and Mary College of Delhi University, with whom we got to converse, are already breaking barriers for women and spearheading change. As demonstrated throughout this trip by the amazing and powerful women that I 

met – from the leadership of the Guild for Service, to its female and male staff, to the NGOs, and to my colleagues - change is underway happening marginally but making a difference  daily.