Dalit widows face triple discrimination, as Dalits, Women, and Widows.


Dalit WidowIn 2006, Dalit Solidarity initiated a program to improve the lives of India's widows. We invited the widows, living in the 36 villages where we work, covering an area of 175 sq. miles, to become members of an organization formed exclusively for widows. In less than one year, over 200 widows have joined. The majority of these women, are under the age of forty-five.

The widows selected the name “Sprouts” for their organization, to reflect their new growth as women and as individuals. Sprouts has provided them with the first opportunity to come together and share their experiences as widows.

The prevalence of widowhood in India is among the highest in the world for all age groups. Among younger Indian women (15-35), 1% are widows. 12% of middle aged women (36-59) are widows and 55% of all women above the age of 60 are widows. (Indian Government Statistics, 1991). Although many countries throughout the world have social rules that regulate widows' lives during a specified mourning period, in India, strict codes of dress, demeanor and diet are imposed upon widows for the remainder of their lives, often with dire consequences.

Sprouts registration daySprouts' widows are learning to create a positive identity for themselves.

Ideally, widowed wives and their children are cared for by their extended families. The difficulty of their situation is compounded by the patriarchal nature of Indian society, which conditions women to be dependent on men for access to most productive resources and economic opportunities. Different segments of local labor markets are labeled as male or female, and the women are concentrated in the lower paid and less stable types of employment.

Because women generally are not permitted to deal with strangers, and the men handle all family negotiations, it is extremely difficult for widows to suddenly take over the man's responsibilities in the family when they have had limited experience in talking to, let alone bargaining with men. The end result is that widows find themselves at a general disadvantage in any type of economic transaction. It is no surprise that households headed by widows have a higher than average level of poverty which of course, has a serious impact upon the children.

If their widowed mother cannot make ends meet, the children go hungry.

The widows of Sprouts support their children by working in the fields as day laborers. They are paid 25 Rs/(59cents) day, during the four months of planting season and earn an annual salary of about 3,000 Rs.($71).

While they usually share a hut with extended family members, they do not usually share food. Meals are primarily rice and sambar, with meat, fruit and vegetables limited to special occasions.

Their education is minimal. Most did not attend school past fifth grade and their literacy skills are limited to writing their names and reading familiar street signs. They see no possibility for educating their children beyond the 10th grade.

Even necessary medical care is a luxury that cannot be afforded.

Dalit Solidarity's Dairy Cow Project and Homebuilding Project will provide the means for Sprouts' members to greatly improve their standard of living for themselves and their families. It will also enable these widows to demonstrate that they are not a risk to the order of society because they have no husbands, but rather are productive individuals deserving of dignity and respect.