Article Nov 25, 2016

A city of vulnerable ones: India, widows and how we can respond

As a married woman with two children, I have considered what I would do if my husband were to die. I pray that is not the case, but if it did happen, I have at least the framework of a plan to be able to provide for our family in his absence. As the sole breadwinner, many adjustments would need to be made. On top of the agony of losing the man I love, my life would be flipped around in several ways. Being a widow, whether young or old, is surely never easy.

Yet a recent report from BBC Travel revealed to me just how different my experience as a widow might be from thousands of women in India. Vrindavan, a city around 60 miles south of Delhi, has become the home of at least 20,000 widows, forced to live out the rest of their lives away from family and friends. In some Hindu communities it is believed that a man’s death is the fault of his wife--that she has brought misfortune to his family. Having lived with her in-laws, once a woman’s husband dies, she is cast out.

There is an immense degree of shame associated with being a widow in these communities. Up until the 1820s, widows were expected to commit suicide by burning themselves on their husband’s funeral pyres. In the eyes of her community, a widow’s life is not worth living. Even her own children often want nothing to do with her.

Once cast aside, Indian widows seek a new home in a city where they can disappear and not be the focal point of persecution. Vrindavan has become this home for thousands due in part to its significance to the Hindu religion. It is believed to be the childhood home of the god Krishna. In the city, many widows live together in homes provided by NGOs, Christian ministries and other nonprofit organizations. Some of these women receive training to generate income and begin earning a wage for the first time in their lives. They find solidarity with others who have experienced what they are suffering through.

Yet the Hindu religion can offer little hope to these women. Because their current status is seen as a reflection of their actions in a previous life, the stigma associated with being a widow is hard to overcome. Contrary to the teachings of Christianity—to care for the widow (see Ps. 68:5 and James 1:27)—this is a religious system that forces a widow to live in shame, trying desperately to earn a better outcome for the next life.

This story from the BBC opened my eyes to a problem that was never on my radar. And here are four ways I’m inspired to respond—here and beyond our borders—to what I’ve learned:

  1. Pray for widows in India. These women need the true hope only Christ can provide—the hope that tells us that our future eternal life has already been earned for us by Jesus. I pray for systems to change and human dignity to be valued. I pray for the emptiness of the false promises of religions like Hinduism to be seen and exposed, and for the truth of the gospel to shine in India.
  2. Pray for workers in India. There are Christians who are working with widows in Vrindavan and other cities. Pray for boldness, love and the power of the Holy Spirit. And pray that God would send more workers—that laborers would be willing to go, that they would be sent and empowered by the Spirit and that compassion would compel many to see how we can serve these widows. It’s uncomfortable to read about these women and ask what our response should be. But it’s a discomfort that I think is right and good, and one that God will use for the spread of the good news.
  3. Spend time with widows in my community.  I immediately thought of three names of women I can reach out to when I was writing this. One is young and two are older, but I’m sure they all need to hear the affirmation that their lives have meaning and worth even after their marriages are over. This should be a given, but even in our western culture I imagine it’s easy to feel part of your identity has left when your spouse passes away. It’s simple to send a card or stop in for a visit as a means of letting these women know they are loved and important.
  4. Care for the practical needs of widows. I know several women who need help with yard work, house upkeep and financial planning. I also know they struggle to ask for the help they need. I have no doubt I would be the same way. So why not save them the struggle? We can easily reach out, ask specific questions and find ways to meet those needs.

Caring for widows in our culture may be completely different from other parts of the world, but fundamentally, the issues are the same. Widows need to know they are made in the image of God, given value and purpose as his creation and that this purpose does not end when their husbands die. I’m thankful for the widows in my life who continue to reflect their Creator to the world around them. And I pray for widows the world over to be given the same freedom in Christ.