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NEPAL: Widows Break Tradition – Wear Red

KATHMANDU, Dec 16 2009 (IPS) - Bhagwati Adhikari was a teenager when she was married off to a village boy of the same caste. Just a few years later when she was in her early 20s, she became a widow. Her husband, who worked as a security guard in Kathmandu, was murdered. Adhikari was left alone to support her family.

When Bhagwati got married, she was just starting eighth grade but had to quit school when she moved to her husband’s family. Her in-laws would not let her study. When her husband passed away, she had to find a way to support herself, so Adhikari looked for jobs but soon realised she had no skills.

She also understood that with her husband’s death the way society viewed her had also changed. Hindu customs in Nepal forbids widows from wearing shades of red. “I had to wear only white and it was pretty obvious that I was recently widowed,” recalls Adhikari.

“Neighbours and friends stopped talking to me, men made indecent advances, I wasn’t allowed to be around during religious ceremonies because widows are considered bad luck – it is not easy to be a widow in Nepal,” she says.

She knew she had to fight the battles alone and she couldn’t do that without education. She ignored her parents and in-laws’ objections, and went back to school in her native Kahbre district, west of Kathmandu valley. Adhikari flourished in high-school and as soon as she finished she found a job with Women for Human Rights, an organisation that works with widows to empower and fight for their rights.

Widow's Voice

"My story is not very different from the ones you have already heard," says Lily Thapa, founder of Women for Human Rights. She sits surrounded by other widows who work with her at WHR as each tell their story of struggle.

Thapa’s husband, a doctor in a peacekeeping mission in Iraq during the Gulf War, died of a heart attack. Widowed at 32 with small children, Thapa found herself suddenly alone. "I really had no support, no one to even talk," she recalls.

Desperate to talk about the pain inside her, in 1994 she got together with other widows in the neighbourhood and started a support group, which would later become WHR. "We would meet, talk and then cry, sometimes for hours," says Thapa.

A few years later she got the opportunity to go to the U.K. for training, and Thapa says it exposed her to the world of different possibilities. She came back and made WHR more active - she started providing skills training to widows, and started credit and saving schemes for those who wanted to start small businesses. In early 2000, the Red Campaign was launched where widows in Nepal’s villages were encouraged to wear red. She says, "Why should a widow wear white for the rest of her life -making her vulnerable to ostracism, violence and sexual advances from men."

The campaign spread from one village to another. "We had a case of an 80-year-old father-in-law coming out in public, in front of the entire village, to give a red shawl to his widowed daughter-in-law." What started out in a small room in Thapa’s neighbourhood has expanded to 52 of the 75 districts in Nepal with 225 groups and 44,000 members. WHR is also the secretariat of the South Asian Network for Widows Empowerment in Development, which is a network of organisations working with widows in South Asian countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. WHR has also recently established an international chapter in Australia.

Thapa is looking to establish training centres in all five development regions of Nepal in the next two years so rural widows don't have to come to Kathmandu if they need help. WHR is also in the process of putting up a bigger hospice in Kathmandu and other areas where widows, especially those rejected by their families, can feel safe.

Thapa and other rights activists are also pushing the government to include data on Nepali widows in the 2011 census.

Says Thapa, "What needs relentless work is the one we have to do in our society - break the barriers so that widows can come out and live freely - this will take time to change, but I have nowhere to go, no other battle to fight, I am in this until the end."

The job, and her meeting with other widows who were now trying to rebuild their lives, empowered her to move to Kathmandu and live by herself. She defied her parents, in-laws and conservative Hindu customs and stopped wearing white. All she wanted was to live a respectful life and plan for a better future for her children. She expected nothing from the state or the society.

In the recent Nepali budget, the government announced its plan to provide 50,000 rupees (666 dollars) to the couple when a man marries a widow.

Widows like Adhikari are humiliated; organisations who have been working with single women are shocked and women rights activists are outraged.

“We have worked so hard to end discrimination against widows, and have had small successes,” says Lily Thapa, founder and president of WHR, “but when the government makes a decision like this, it takes us many steps back and proves how insensitive policymakers can be.”

For many years WHR has been pushing the government to provide pension to all Nepali widows.

Rekha Subedi, 31, was widowed when her husband was killed during the ‘People’s War’ by the Maoists. Subedi is outraged, “Now I feel like there’s a price attached to me, how can the government think this step will empower widows like us?” she asks.

Representatives of rights groups say that this latest decision puts pressure on widows to marry. “Marriage is a deeply personal decision, it is a choice an individual makes. Why is the government interfering by allocating money for remarriage?” asks Thapa. Activists lobbying for the elimination of the dowry system fear that attaching monetary value to marriage may propagate a different kind of dowry system.

“Policymakers seem to think that the women can only feel secure if she is married to a man – this is downright humiliating for us widows who have been living alone and supporting our families,” says Nisha Swar whose husband was abducted and later killed by the Maoists in 2002.

Advocate Kabita Pandey of the human rights group Pro Public says that the government’s decision will create dependency of widows on men and will make them more vulnerable to violence. According to WHR, the number of widows with children is far more than those without. A decision like this not only makes the women but also their children vulnerable to abuse and sexual violence.

“This is a country where fathers, brothers and close family members sell their sister, daughter, wife, to traffickers because of poverty – we have had cases of women being trafficked for less than 100 dollars. Traffickers can easily marry widows, collect their 666 dollars and sell the women off for more money,” says Pandey.

The government has no figures on the number of widows in the country. WHR has 44,000 members in 225 villages of Nepal – its work area. But there is no data on how many widows there are in the remaining 3,688 villages.

WHR, which has filed a writ against the government, prime minister, minister and ministry of finance in October, is now in consultation with Nepal’s planning commission, ministry of finance and other ministries and activists say that the meetings so far have been positive.

“We are working so that the provisions are removed from the budget altogether, that’s what the widows want,” says Thapa. Women’s rights activist say that if the government tries to push through with the decision they will intensify their pressure and protest from the streets.

“This issue is not going to go by pushing it under the rug, we are united, and we’ll fight until this humiliating policy goes away,” says Swar.

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