Dr Mohini Giri, India’s leading woman’s activist is determined to see a shift within the treatment of widows.

“India being a patriarchal society, the women is discriminated at her birth itself. Hence, when she loses her husband and becomes a widow, she loses her identity. A woman deprived, abandoned, malnourished will naturally have a high mortality rate,” Dr Giri told me in an email interview last year.

Dr Giri, former chair for the National Commission of Women and founder of the internationally renowned Guild of Service has been instigating a national programme on ensuring Indian legislation is gender sensitive.

“In a patriarchal society, change has to come within the people. Of course, the government also has to take steps like it did in abolishing ‘Sati.’ Since we began our advocacy, the government has started giving a pension of Rs. 200 per month. However, we need to collect the exact data of how many single-women households, how many widows are there and how many are still stigmatised,” Dr Giri explained.

A survey of 1,000 people in India by WorldPublicOpinion.org found that 42% agreed that widows are still discriminated against, despite the substantial international attention over the mistreatment of women.

“Widowhood is not a priority within the government. It is only now that we are pushing the issue, not only with the Government and the Planning Commission, but also at the United Nations,” said Dr Giri.

The National Commission of Women conducted a comprehensive survey earlier this year based on the approximate 5,000 widows currently living in Vrindavan who are solely dependent either on alms given by pilgrims or doles from the government. The six-month intensive survey of the women found that 74% of destitute widows belonged to West Bengal, followed by 3% each from Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Submitting the survey to the Supreme Court last month, the Commission said: “The status of widowed women in Bengal is amongst the worst in the country and in modern times poverty is another reason for the arrival of more and more women from West Bengal.” The states of Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal contribute the highest percentage of widows in India mainly because remarriage is objectionable.

The Loomba Trust which aims to alleviate the plight of impoverished widows and their children named 23 June as International Widow’s Day in 2005, with the idea that an anniversary to mark the occasion could trigger the reform of national laws to eradicate prejudice against widows.

“Traditional perceptions that have changed are still confined to the 2% widowed population that I come across. India has 40 million widows and to bring about change in all of them in the short span of two decades, the time I have been working for is not possible,” Dr Giri noted.

For much of the 19th and 20th century, there have been many attempts by social reformers to address the plight of Hindu widows. But at present, only 60% of Indians compared to the global average of 86% believe it is necessary to take action against this type of discrimination. Enforcement has been challenging and there are several regional, religious and caste variants of family law which tend to escape jurisdiction.

“Tradition and customs are man-made and are prevalent in society due to its widespread acceptance in the social milieu. The values present in a patriarchal Brahaminical society have enforced wrong values in society towards widows,” said Dr Giri.

“I was affected by all ill treatment meted out to widows… hence we break away from the traditional norms of widows being given one meal a day and not being allowed to have meat or certain foods,” said Dr Giri. According to the Global Ministries Foundation, deprivations causing mortality for widows are 85% higher amongst widows than married women.

Dr Giri explained: “I lost my father when I was nine years old… the role of a single woman eking out a living, educating her children were harsh realities of the suffering that I saw. Especially in the absence of a male head and education, it’s very little that a woman can do. But with a good network in the country that will lobby for the rights of widows, we are striving hard to teach women their rights so that they will assert themselves.”