They have been traditionally regarded as bad omens, to be kept away from social gatherings and auspicious occasions. Shunned by family and community, widows from across India have sought refuge in Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, for decades.
Most of them are abandoned by their families, or humiliated and forced to leave their homes. An estimated 15,000 widows find themselves on the streets of Vrindavan begging, and of these, only a miniscule have found shelter in the government ashrams. This is the grim, shameful scenario that Delhi-based NGO Maitri is trying to change.
Since 2010, the NGO has reached out to about 500 widows, providing them with midday meals, fruits, medicines, nutritional supplements and clothes. It also helps these women gain access to government benefits like medical insurance, Below Poverty Line cards, widow's and old age pension, and provides them with regular medical care as well as specialized healthcare for cancer, cataracts, etc.
Maitri plans to build a home in Vrindavan that will accommodate 100 widows and function as a resource centre for training in geriatric care. Called Maitrighar, it will provide shelter and widows will be able to learn skills for income generation here, always keeping in mind their health and spiritual desires. The organization is also partnering with companies to create employment opportunities for the widows.
Maitri's efforts are a small step towards restoring to these women the dignity and respect they deserve. Clearly, much more needs to be done, given the fact many, even today, regard widows as untouchables.
"Awareness is of key essence, especially in today's changing times where, with the advent of nuclear families, respect for the elderly is eroding. The show was a timely effort."
- Winnie Singh, Executive Director, Maitri
Founded in 2005, Delhi-based Maitri works in the areas of public health, violence against women and welfare of vulnerable populations. This work has led the organization towards caring for abandoned, destitute and elderly widows, educating underprivileged children, providing primary healthcare to migrant rickshaw drivers, helping survivors of domestic violence develop coping skills, and counselling people with HIV/AIDS. Maitri currently works with more than 500 widows in Vrindavan and Radha Kund, and hopes to support and empower many more in the future.