A report was prepared of a committee set up by the Supreme Court of India, vide judgment dated August 11, 2017 in Writ Petition (Civil) No. 659 of 2007 on widows of Vrindavan. Accepted by the court, the expert committee which prepared the report consisted of Suneeta Dhar (Jagori), , Meera Khanna (Guild of Service), Abha Singhal Joshi (lawyer), Anupama Dutta (HelpAge India), Dr Bindeshwar Pathak (Sulabh International), and Aparajita Singh (advocate). Excerpts from the report:
The present report is being submitted pursuant to the judgment of the Hon’ble Supreme Court dated August 11, 2017 directing the Committee to study the various reports filed before the Court and provide a common working plan.
The Committee convened at the office of the National Commission for Women on September 4, 2017 and held several meetings thereafter. During these meetings, the Committee examined and consolidated the findings from the reports. A list of the key issues were tabulated and individual members, as per their expertise, added to the content. The Committee felt that, given the experience of some members on the practical aspects of welfare and empowerment of widows, work that has already been done could be included as annexurcs to the recommendations, to enable agencies to execute the directions which may be passed by the Hon’ble Court.
The fundamental factor which has guided the recommendations of the Committee is that the subject matter of the recommendations are impoverished and mostly illiterate older women, who are lost in the complex web of administrative structures, and thus deprived of benefits due to them.
Expecting the widows described above to navigate through the labyrinth of the multiple agencies designated for distribution of benefits is an unreal expectation and scripted for failure.
The approach of the state needs to change drastically for benefits to percolate to this deprived class of citizens. Rather than wait for the widows to knock at the doors of the state, it is the state which needs to proactively reach their door steps and pre-empt destitution. Therefore, much emphasis has been laid on preventive measures to ensure that widows do not necessarily need to be on the streets to receive the attention of the state.
Also there needs to be a paradigm shift in the attitudes to interventions from the welfare approach, that views the widows as recipients of doles, to an entitlement approach. The destitute widows should be able to claim the required services from the state as a matter of right. These women are entitled to to live with dignity, with help from the family, the community and the state. It is a “Many Hands” approach that will create the enabling climate for widows to be aware of their rights, have the support to access the rights and the necessary skills and environment to earn a livelihood.
Unfortunately, no effort is made to empower the widows in their own right or integrate them with the community. This negative approach leads to continuous increase in the number of dependents which in turn puts additional stress on the resources of the state.
Even the limited services and benefits on offer are unable to reach the recipients due to poor implementation, non-existent coordination and indifferent monitoring process. The benefits actually distributed are also disbursed intermittently and are invariably delayed due to bureaucratic hurdles.
The objective of the recommendations is to ensure easy access to services and benefits through coordinated mechanisms comprehensible to beneficiaries.
To this end, a Single Window System is the key to coordinated implementation of the schemes. E-governance in the form of common helpline and digitalisation of data, records and reports are the other tools that could ensure easy access to benefits and seamless coordination among the multiple agencies tasked with the implementation of the various schemes.
Multiple options for access to benefits would act as a safety net and is therefore imperative for successful implementation of the schemes. Active involvement of the local community is also important as it would help in independent monitoring of implementation.
Widows are not a Homogeneous Group
It is important to emphasize that widows are not a homogeneous group concentrated in the shelter homes alone. More than half the widows surveyed reside independently and constitute the most neglected category. Therefore implementation schemes should be designed keeping this distinction in consideration. Depending on their living environment, the widows may broadly be classified into three categories:
- Widows living at home or in families.
- Widows living independently in communities. Widows in shelter homes.
Widows living at home or in families
Certain measures may be needed for preventing widows from being forced out of their own homes and families. Given the dependence of the average woman on her husband, sons and male relatives for sustenance, most widows continue to face discrimination and deprivation even while continuing to live with their families. The Committee has, therefore, suggested some measures to identify such widows and bring them within the outreach of the concerned agencies, if required. This outreach may stem the exodus of widows from their homes and familiar environments.
Widows living independently in communities
More than fifty percent of women live independently and are among the most deprived in terms of access to state sponsored schemes. It is crucial that welfare and other support services reach out to them. Measures needed to help link them to government agencies and schemes have been suggested.
Widows in shelter homes
The immediate concern raised in the studies is of destitute widows who are living in shelters such as government-run homes and Ashrams. All the studies point to the fact that widows throng to places where there is likelihood of getting some form of shelter and sustenance, The studies suggest that despite the spirit of the interventions being altruistic, the condition of these homes is miserable.
Prevention of Child Marriage & Early Widowhood
Child marriage has been identified as a major factor which leads to early widowhood and resultant destitution and vulnerability. In one study, almost 100% of the widows surveyed were married below 18 years of age and there existed a huge age difference between the women and their husbands. Programmes for strengthening systemic interventions through the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 need to be strengthened to minimise these incidents. The judgment of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the case of Independent Thought vs. Union of Indi is a significant step in this direction.
All the studies and reports suggest that destitution of widows stems from the complete lack of financial security after the death of the spouse. In order that women may be protected from this situation of extreme destitution, the schemes and programmes for independent financial security for all women, in particular women from economically and socially disadvantaged class, need to be implemented through simple measures like ensuring universalisation of banking, small savings, simple livelihood options, skill development, access to loans and financial literacy through the concerned agencies.
Access to Property
One of the factors common to women/widows of all classes is lack of control over property, and deprivation from property of husbands and fathers through subversion of the succession process. Unless this trend is controlled and reversed, the situation of women in general, and widows in particular, will continue to be vulnerable.
Skill Development and Access to Sustainable Livelihoods
A major deficiency in the current framework of skill development is that the widow is left to her own resources after training without any access to credit, market linkage or job placement despite existence of government schemes designed for the purpose. There is also no effort to organise the widows into cooperatives under the various schemes which has proved to be a successful model for self employment. Implentation of these schemes in letter and spirit would go a long way in rehabilitation of the widows and creation of a skilled workforce.
The most important aspect of rehabilitaton, often completely overlooked, is empowerment of the widows by recognising them as worthy individuals in their own right, and not mere dependents on the family and the system. It is imperative to restore and respect the dignity of widows by integrating them into the community, rather than treating them as objects of pity. This should be done through programmes designed to enhance participation of widows in all walks of life through social and cultural organisations such as Rotary and Lions Clubs, Self Help Groups, Single-Women’s Networks (EKAL Nari Sanghathan), Mahila Mandals and other social networks. This would help the widows find a voice to access rights and entitlements and secure emotional and peer support. Widows should also be involved in the management of shelter homes and have a say in running of the homes.
Studies seem to suggest a reluctance on the part of widows to revert to a family atmosphere due to a variety of reasons, ranging from worries about children from earlier marriage to social ridicule. Many widows are possibly experiencing independence and freedom from regular abuse. However, a gradual shift in attitude is visible. Therefore it is important that widow remarriage should be destigmatised.
Counselling, wherever done, should encourage discussion on marriage and like relationships, including emotional needs in order to create a supportive environment for the widow to remarry or enter into a relationship, should she wish to. Where a widow wants to remarry or settle down with a partner, she should be facilitated to do so and be guided through the full legal consequences of marriage. If there are children, the status of the children qua the new spouse should be clarified. Where a widow remarries out of a shelter home, or starts to reside with a partner, she should have the option of returning without undergoing fresh formalities in case the marriage or relationship fails, or the spouse or partner dies.
Absence of Data on Widows
Finally, the differing forms of violence against widows are known. Yet there is, astonishingly, very little data available. This is probably due to the myth that widows are taken care of by the familial households and so the deprivations of widows are well hidden in economic and social statistics. Since the poorest segment of a population usually comprises female-headed households, it is probable that households headed by widows face greater economic hardships than most. The lack of income data desegregated by headship and marital status prevents the direct documentation of the economic vulnerability of widows and widow-headed households. Without adequate data, it will be impossible to underscore the economic, social and political vulnerabilities of widows. Dearth of data renders the widows invisible in the discourse on poverty. Data on the status of widows across a large sample size, indicating both core and relative deprivations, can be both a management tool and a report card for conceptualizing, implementing and monitoring interventions to empower widows.
Widows are, perhaps, the lowest in the rung of the endemic vulnerability of women. This vulnerability needs to be addressed by long-term measures which would ensure that widowhood does not throw a woman into distress, in addition to short-term or on-going measures to support the widows in distress.
The long-term measures for prevention from destitution include:
- Focus on prevention of child marriage and early widowhood.
- Identification of vulnerable widows and pro-active outreach to them. Financial literacy and inclusion Protection of property.
- Protection from domestic violence.
- Access to affordable legal interventions.
- Promotion of community-based single-women networks.
The short-term or on-going measures for homeless, destitute women include:
- Ease of access to Social Security Schemes/Health Services/Legal aid.
- Social integration and rehabilitation including skill development.
- Protection from exploitation, abuse and offences.
- Availability/Upgradation/Maintenance of shelters homes.
- Allocation of sufficient funds for shelter homes and systems for proper disbursal and expenditure.
- Systematic monitoring of shelter homes/schemes.