Travails of the Goan Widow
Iris C F Gomes
Raj Kapoor’s Prem Rog was one of the first films that permitted us a view of the life of a widow in India on the silver screen. Head shorn, draped in a white saree, the lead actress Padmini Kolhapure was a victim of rape in her dead husband’s household. Sadly, there are victims of widowhood who suffer much the same all over the world. Besides the loss of the loved one, widows have to bear with stigmatisation, sexual abuse and being deprived of their rightful inheritance. In some countries, they are even accused of witchcraft and murdered. Economic duress carries some further into the cesspool of prostitution as they can see no other option to support their family.
International Widows Day, celebrated on the 23rd of June, was recognised by the United Nations in 2010, and was created for the very reason of bringing these violations against the rights of widows to the forefront of our attention. The Loomba Foundation, which led the campaign for the formal establishment of a day dedicated to widows, has a 2010 study that records the existence of 245 million widows in the world. Of these, 115 million are gripped by abject poverty. Lord Raj Loomba founded the Loomba Foundation and has been driven to uplift the social and economic status of widows in India and other developing countries after having experienced the suffering of his own mother who became a widow at 37 years of age on the 23rd of June.
While the rest of India still quivers under the burden of regressive attitudes against widows, Goa may be considered relatively better off. However, this does not mean that widows are not exploited in Goa. With the high rates of accident and alcohol related deaths, there are indeed a high number of widows in Goa. Widowhood as a result of illness and old age is comparatively less prominent.
Whatever the reason for the widowhood, these women have to deal with discrimination which seems to worsen in the rural areas. Within their own families, they are labelled as inauspicious beings. There are stories of widowed mothers not being allowed to attend their own children’s weddings. If they dress in colourful clothes and wear jewellery, they become victims of gossip and some give in to social pressure to avoid being abused in this manner. Besides the psychological effects of taking away anything and everything that might lighten the weight of the death of one’s husband, the self-appointed judges in society only believe in holding on to meaningless traditions. In terms of health too, the Catholic norm of widows wearing black clothing for three years is a medically proven health risk. It greatly contributes to the depression that is a part of the normal cycle of grieving.
The situation tends to improve depending on where the widow is placed on the educational and economic scale. For example, two women, who were widowed early in life, disclosed that they were teachers and hence had their own savings aside from their husbands’, and the families of both spouses were highly supportive. They were encouraged to garb themselves in a manner pleasing to them despite caustic comments by neighbours.a
It is evident that it is the uneducated widows in Goa who usually get a raw deal, many-a-times being duped out of property and by family memebers and others as well. Lorna Fernandes of GOACAN (Goa Civic and Consumer Action Network) recounted how her widowed maid was tricked out of her savings after being convinced to invest in a hotel scheme which was sold to her as a fixed deposit plan.
Most have no knowledge of their legal rights by way of the Uniform Civil Code (exclusive to Goa) that entitles the widow to her husband’s share of the property. If the widow has children, she has the right to half that share and her children to the other half. Women whose husbands were employed in government jobs are given employment in keeping with their level of education based on the scheme of Compassionate Appointment. Activist Roland Martins advised that self-help groups consisting entirely of widows should be formed in various places in Goa so as to provide emotional support and a platform to counsel each other. Joint initiatives by widows to promote financial stability are also practical idea.
For free advice on legal matters, and drafting and filling out applications, widows can approach the Jana Suvidha Kendra set up by the G R Kare College of Law at the Matanhy Saldanha Administrative Complex, Margao. The V M Salgaocar College of Law Legal Aid Society has free legal aid cells all over Goa, situated in panchayat buildings, on church or temple premises and in schools. There are resources available but awareness needs to be created to empower widows persecuted by exploitative individuals. Below are the contact details for the two law colleges which will provide you with further information on the free legal aid cells.
(*This article is based in part on the dialogue between various individuals meeting at the Friday Balcao at Mapusa)