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Bringing in a new Dawn- a story of Banaras widows by Geeta Sahai

 Veena,  has marks on her face, hands and feet. Her husband remarried after five years of her marriage and threw her out of the house. She returned to her parent’s house but was disowned. One day her brother brought her to Banaras and left her here. For many days, months she just wandered on the ghats of Banaras. “I don’t remember for how many days I wandered aimlessly on the streets and ghats of Banaras.” One night a vehicle hit her. When she regained consciousness in the hospital, she could hardly comprehend her situation. Her eyes dried up. She doesn’t cry now but has not forgotten to dream. She still dreams of her husband coming to take her back but lives in reality and says, “He will not come.”  Saying this she laughs. She lives in Missionary of Charity, Banaras.  

Sitamani, 75 years old has nobody at home. Her husband passed away 20 years ago and since then she has come to Varanasi to eke out her living through begging. She has no children. “There s no money and my frail body cannot work.”

75 year old Panna Devi lives in an ashram near Sankatmochan temple, Banaras. Her husband died when she was just 30 years old. She has been living in the ashram since last 25 years. To any question, she would say, “Why should I tell you?”  

Veena, Sitamani, Panna Devi, Vedvati, Ramkali and many others. These are not mere names of widows staying in Banaras. Each name has a heart-touching tale hidden behind their each wrinkle. There are hundreds of widows who have been driven out from their homes, excluded from society, and their presence considered inauspicious in religious ceremonies  or family get together, were left on the banks of the holy Ganga.  “Widow’s life is a curse nobody should bear. I pray to Almighty that I should not be destined to be a widow in my next birth,” says  Meghu Dasi, aged 61, widow of Awaipad Sarkar of West Bengal. She was married at the age of 15. She had a happy married life with her husband and had three daughters. But after her husband’s death she was expected to bow to the age-old tradition in Bengal that required her to pass the rest of life in penance.  

This is the story of many of the widows even in the 21st century of free Independent India, included in the list of the developed nation. “Why should widowhood snatch away all their rights to stay alive, to live?” questions Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, Founder Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement. He has launched a social ‘revolution’ to raise the status of widows and to empower them to live with respect and dignity.  “Sulabh has set up a fund to distribute an income of Rs 2000/- to each widow so that they can participate in various religious festivals and live with dignity.”  Along with the pension scheme he has also made arrangements for  medical facilities and vocational training. “We provide vocational training for making garlands, preparing incense sticks, sewing and embroidery too," Dr Pathak adds. 

He has gifted two ambulances and has made arrangement for teachers to educate widows in three languages—Hindi, Bengali and English.  

"I strongly feel that the time has come to enact a law for the welfare, protection and maintenance of widows so that their living conditions and general existence are ameliorated,” he expresses and adds, “I have called on the country's parliament to approve a new law that would guarantee the welfare of widows.” He is also planning to  propose to the government that whoever marries widows should be given a government job and if that man ever  leaves that woman, he will have to resign from the job, too. “I am trying my best to remove the stigma against widows,” opines Dr Pathak.

Widows sang and danced when Dr Pathak announced his plan for improving their plight to them. Many couldn’t control their choked emotions. Tears rolled down the wrinkled face of 88-year-old Bindeshwari Devi of Motihari, Bihar. She frequently wiped them with her crooked, knotty fingers.    

 Bindeshwari Devi was widowed at the age of 25. She was left alone with her two sons. When both her sons passed away, she came to Varanasi to "die here at the feet of Baba Vishwanath."  Today, she spends her time reading the Ramayan "again and again" and taking part in bhajans. “Now my medical needs would be taken care of,” she expresses overwhelmed with emotions. 

Presently, the widows of Banaras are spread all over the city-- living in ashrams, Missionary of Charity and some in private premises. Most of them beg for their livelihood outside temples, particularly Sankatmochan temple. To ascertain exact number, Sulabh has begun their survey at Durga Kund Ashram, Birla ashram, the Nepali temple and Sarnath-based ashram.

It was in 2012 that the Supreme Court , completely shocked at the treatment meted to widows, gave directive to Sulabh International to intervene and improve the plight of widows in Vrindavan and elsewhere. The court had asked the National Legal Service Authority to contact the Sulabh International to find whether could  come forward to help 1,780 widows living in four government shelters at Vrindavan. Dr Pathak readily agreed, “We will take care of every need of the widows. Sulabh will ensure food, clothing, proper health care and hygiene.”

After Varanasi, the Sulabh International intervened in Banaras and Dr Pathak hopes to take the ‘movement’ to other parts of India, too.