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Friday, 1 February, 2002, 12:27 GMT
Widows' hardship in focus
India is estimated to have 40 million widows
Jill McGivering

The world's first international conference on widows in South Asia has opened in the Indian capital, Delhi.

It is a three day event which organisers hope will highlight the hardships suffered by those women who are marginalised and even reduced to poverty once they lose their husbands.

The conference organisers say India alone has almost 40 million widows - and as a group, these women are often marginalised and disadvantaged.

Many widows are forced to rely on their children, particularly sons, for protection.

In traditional Hindu society, for example, inheritance and property rights pass directly from father to son, leaving a widow with little or no claim.

On the margins

Widows are excluded from many religious ceremonies and, unlike men, not allowed to remarry.

They are supposed to wear only white, shave their heads and limit themselves to one meal a day, without spices or meat.

Many widows live on hand-outs

In recent years, a great deal has been done to enhance the status of widows and many of these practices are being challenged and rejected.

But organisers say many widows are still socially stigmatised and economically deprived.

Some religious towns serve as places of refuge for thousands of widows who chant in the temples for a small amount of food or money.

One of the few positive examples in the region is from Bhutan.

A report submitted to the conference says widows there do not face discrimination imposed by tradition or religious customs and do have equal inheritance rights.

Widows are also free to remarry after a one year period of mourning.

See also:

17 Feb 01 | South Asia
Nepali women fight for their share
19 Feb 01 | South Asia
India's violent homes
27 Sep 99 | South Asia
Woman power in India's villages
26 Jul 01 | South Asia
Kashmir bans the widow word
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