Every day, Vandana Jadhav puts on her bindi and mangalsutra before reporting to work at a tile manufacturing firm. The 36-year-old mother of two lost her husband in August 2021. “He had a cold and cough and chest pain,” she says.
Vandana lives in Mangaon, a small village in Kolhapur’s Hatkanangale tehsil, Maharashtra. If she was living in any other village in India, she would have probably been forced to forgo all symbols of marriage for a Hindu woman. The sindoor would be wiped from her forehead, her mangalsutra and toe rings removed, the bangles on her wrists broken.
But change is in the air. Two tiny villages in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district have taken a giant leap in engineering social change. On 4 May, the gram sabha at Herwad unanimously passed a resolution to abolish the regressive practice that robs women of their agency. A few days later, Mangaon village—about 20 kilometres away—followed suit.
What’s more? The gram sabha in Mangaon is ‘rewarding’ families monetarily and with tax cuts.
Incentivising the ban
Raju Magdum, sarpanch of Mangaon, admits that people need to be incentivised so that the practice of ostracising women who have lost their husbands is stamped out in each household.
“These traditions are very old and if people are forced to change their ways, then they may rebel,” he says.
Any household that breaks away from enforcing such practices will not have to pay property or water tax for a year. “We have also given such families Rs 5,000 as a token of appreciation and will felicitate them during our Independence Day celebrations on 15 August.”
All 17 members of the gram panchayat will be writing a pledge on stamp paper saying that they will implement the new resolution in their own households. There are also plans to pass a resolution to offer financial aid to young widows who want to remarry.
Change begins at home
Gram panchayat members in both Herwad and Mangaon were initially worried about the villagers’ reaction to their proposal. Mukta Pujari, a gram panchayat member from Herwad, said that they had decided to put this resolution forward six months ago. “But we feared that nobody would accept them. However, on 4 May, we put it in front of the gram sabha, and it was passed unanimously.”
Village leaders are now planning to work towards sensitising residents. “It’s a challenge to make people understand all this but we have to start it in our own homes first,” said Sushma Rane, a member of Herwad gram panchayat. “We have to treat our daughter-in-law like our own daughter.”
Vandana’s sister-in-law, Sadhyarani Jadhav, a gram panchayat member spearheading this fight for the rights of women, is a vocal supporter of the ban. Change has to begin at home, she says. “Widowhood practices demoralise women. When my brother-in-law passed away, the entire household decided to support Vandana. We did not force any such rules on her,” says Sadhyarani.
Women who have lost their husbands are forced to live the rest of their lives in the periphery of society, ignored and forgotten. However, the pandemic, or rather the toll it wrought in the district, brought the plight of young widows to the forefront. “Many young women lost their husbands during Covid. They have their entire life in front of them,” said Sandhyarani. Government data as of 2 June shows as many as 5,904 people died in Kolhapur district.
Vandana is determined to end these “humiliating” practices. “After a woman’s husband dies, she is not treated well. If a husband dies, how is it the woman’s fault?”
The Maharashtra government has hailed the two villages and banned widowhood practices on the ground that they violate human rights and the dignity of women. Rural development minister Hassan Mushrif issued an official order on 17 May urging all gram panchayats to undertake mass awareness campaigns and pass similar resolutions.
A progressive legacy
Magdum is proud that villagers have taken this step. “We are not your typical village,” he says, recalling the reign of Rajarshi Shahu Chhatrapati (1874-1922) of Kolhapur. Shahu Maharaj, as villagers call him, made history on 26 July 1902 when he reserved 50 percent of government posts for backward class candidates.
“We have always been progressive. This was the same village Babasaheb Ambedkar visited at request of Shahu Maharaj in 1920 for a meeting on untouchability,” claims Magdum.
However, 90 years after Shahu Maharaj’s death, and 156 years after widow remarriage was made legal on 25 July 1856, widows are still fighting for their rights.
Far from heaven for many
At villages in Kolhapur district that ThePrint visited, women spoke about how their lives changed the day their husbands passed away. Every widow had the same question: “Why? Have I killed my husband?” Even in Mangaon, not everyone is as fortunate as Vandana.
Anganwadi worker Bharati Koli, 41, lost her husband in the second wave of Covid. As she has no family to support her, she adheres to society’s ‘rules’. “In my community, when the husband dies, another widow comes on the third day and wipes off the sindoor, breaks bangles and removes toe-rings. How does she not remember her own sorrow and pain while removing the jewellery? Why should one woman do this to another?”
Koli says the society still looks at her as a widow, though she has started wearing a red bindi. Before, women were allowed to put only a black dot on their forehead. “I cannot wear the colour green or attend social or religious gatherings as I will be ostracised.”
In Herwad village, Anita Kamble, a 49-year-old mother of three, has not attended any gathering since her husband died six years ago. “They say we are inauspicious. When my own son got married, I was kept away from the rituals. We are not looked upon as normal women. So I am very happy that such practices have been banned, but it will take time for people to accept it.”