Has India failed its widows? Why more research is needed to protect the mental health of widowed women
Sloka Iyengar Ph.D., PMP is a scientist and global health consultant from Ahmedabad, now living in New York City.
India is home to nearly 55 million widows comprising roughly 10% of the country’s female population, as compared to 3.3% globally. With the country in the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are hundreds of thousands of women that have been recently widowed, many of whom have been struggling to get financial support from the government.
Widows in India are a vulnerable population caught up in a rapidly changing society. India presents a unique dichotomy: on one hand, women in India have gained more education and independence; on the other, this gain has not translated into an improvement in the lives of widows. These women remain marginalized and vulnerable in society, facing stigma, grief, isolation and loneliness.
The grief of a woman losing her husband is complicated in the Indian setting by the loss of her standing in society and community. The sudden loss of autonomy and access to money and property even more marginalize the widow. In the event the widow has a daughter who is not married, the widow has the responsibility of securing a husband and dowry for the daughter.
Interpersonal conflicts between the widow, her children, and their families also impact the widow’s enforced dependence on her children. This dependence can be greatly pronounced in diaspora families where the children have moved abroad, and the widow is pressured into leaving her neighborhood, friends, and everything familiar to move with her children. In a new country with no one to talk to and no companionship, one can only imagine the intense loneliness and isolation faced by widows.
It is difficult to overstate the psychological consequences of this role transition and how widows are perceived. As an example, a non-widowed mother is an essential part of a wedding, but a widowed mother is forbidden to participate in the ceremonies. Every day brings with it a new reminder of how the widow is no longer welcome, that she is worthless.
One may wonder if there is any legal option for widows that are exploited and abandoned by their families. While no statistics have been compiled on this issue, anecdotal evidence suggests that even if legal recourse exists, most widows do not take advantage of it. It is culturally acceptable as an older woman to live in an ashram or beg for a living, rather than to put her child through public shaming that legal action would bring. Often, pubic stigmatization leads to self-stigmatization in widows leading to a decrease in self-esteem.
Given the upheaval in their lives, the role transition, and the intense isolation that widows in India face, many suffer from psychological distress and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
Some groups of widows face even more discrimination. Widows of men that were drug users and died of HIV who may suffer from HIV themselves are labeled as “injecting drug use” (IDU) widows. They are at increased risk of mental health issues due to poverty, stigmatization, discrimination, in addition to the mental health effects of HIV.
The city of Vrindavan sees a great many widows that have been abandoned by their families and that come to the banks of the Ganges to spend their last days in the name of Lord Krishna. While many of the Vrindavan widows sing bhajans at temples, it brings in barely enough to survive. The exact number of widows in Vrindavan is unknown but estimates suggest that as many as 6,000. Some sources have documented the difficulties these women have in obtaining and accessing bank accounts, Aadhar cards, etc. Undocumented and unstudied are trauma of abandonment, and the devastating set of circumstances that force these women to live on the streets in old age.
Political strife also creates “half widows” in Kashmir and in other areas; these women do not know if their husband is alive or dead. Women married as infants find themselves widowed at a very young age. Again, these groups receive very little official attention.
Social transformation provides opportunities for change
A sea change in how widows are treated and perceived is critical to ensure their mental health well-being. But while some data are available, much more is needed. A lack of will and interest, have been roadblocks, as has social stigma. One study has documented the resignation in the sentiment of widows that “the show must go on”. There has been a lack of systematic investigation on the mental health effects of transitioning into widowhood in India. Without knowing the scope and magnitude of the issue, how can we devise effective solutions?
Steps towards economic empowerment of widows and efforts to reunite abandoned widows with their families are underway. But these efforts fall short of the massive need, and even so, are met with strong resistance. We need reform in Indian society that enables women and girls to achieve self-actualization. We need to end the social stigma associated with widowhood. We need to broaden opportunities for economic empowerment. We need laws that bring elder abuse to the forefront, penalize family members that abuse and abandon elderly women, and empower those that have lost their husbands.. Only this way can we begin to tackle the mental health and wellbeing crisis facing widowed women across the country.