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The Invisible Women

Shunned from their families, widows in India driven to the streets to die

According to an old Indian superstition, a widow’s sins are to blame for her husband’s death. As a result, widows face a lifetime of atonement. They have to cut their hair short, wear joyless white mourning saris, and they are prohibited from attending celebrations and social events. Some families force widows to leave their homes and beg in the streets. Widows become untouchable, invisible and ignored, as many fear they bring bad luck.

Until the 19th century, Indian widows would be burnt alive along with the bodies of their dead husbands. This cruel ritual was eventually abolished but the lives of women who outlive their partners can be devoid of all enjoyment, especially if they come from India’s poorest regions. Apart from social stigma, financial issues play an important role in the shunning of Indian widows. 

Without a husband to provide for her, a widow becomes a burden to the rest of her family. For relatives, it is often more convenient to blame the widow for her husband's death and make her leave the household. For financial reasons, these are only women who face these problems: a widowed man is able to remarry several times. In this patriarchal society, only men can be the masters of their own destiny.

As the traditions of arranged marriages and child brides are still alive in India, girls can be widowed at a very young age. It used to be unthinkable for Indian widows to remarry, and many were condemned to spending the majority of their lives alone. 

Attitudes are changing, however progress in the way society perceives Indian widows has not been spontaneous. In recent times, campaigners have stepped in to give these "invisible" women a voice and raise awareness of this important issue. 

The RT Doc film crew went to the city of Vrindavan, home to many Hindu monasteries that shelter Indian widows. Here, the filmmakers spoke to the volunteers and activists helping these women to get their lives back. 

In Vrindavan, widows find a sympathetic community and a chance to learn new skills. With new-found independence, they once again begin to enjoy some of the good things life has to offer.