The Challenges of Indian Widows

Indian women who lose their husbands experience tremendous challenges to fight for their basic rights, dignity, and economic security.  According to the UN, this situation is not unusual for more than 258 million widows around the world. Nearly one in ten widows live in extreme poverty.

The social context, customs and traditions in the Indian society impact the treatment of widowed women. From the moment a woman’s husband dies, the woman is socially ostracized and deprived of many rights—to property, dress, economic resources, leadership, and a sustainable livelihood.


  • Widows are considered the “poorest of the poor” with representing the highest percentage of poverty among the Indian population.
  • They have limited access to credit or other economic resources, even for childcare or education.
  • When widowed, they have no rights or limited rights, to inheritance or land ownership under customary and religious law.
  • They are dependent on the charity of their husbands’ relatives.
  • They may be disowned by relatives and made homeless, forcing many women to seek informal work as domestic laborers or turn to begging or prostitution.
  • In some cases, widows can become liable for the debts of a deceased spouse

Social Exclusion

  • A widow’s very presence is considered as an ill-omen (something which brings bad luck).
  • Social hostility not only dehumanizes the widow, but her children as well feel a sense of shame.
  • Widows are rarely given support when it comes to getting remarried. Relatives and society in general are culturally unsupportive.
  • Widows are often excluded from auspicious occasions—even attending a daughter’s or son’s wedding is looked upon with disapproval.
  • It is frowned upon for widows to wear traditionally acceptable ornaments such as flowers in their hair, thilak (pottu) on their forehead, turmeric powder on their face, and to wear jewelry (necklace, anklet).  

Health Problems

The following are some of the specific health problems experienced by the women in the Nagai District where Kalangarai is located.

  • Malnutrition sets in at an earlier age than usual.
  • Eye trouble begins usually in their mid-thirties
  • Most of them have cataracts and cannot afford to undergo an operation.
  • Early in their 40s and 50s the women have weak bones due to osteoporosis and cannot afford treatment.
  • Many of them get kidney failure because they drink unsafe water and most of them gradually die because they cannot afford dialysis.
  • Jaundice is a frequent ailment that even affects their children.
  • They are more susceptible to lung diseases.
  • Tuberculosis is often not diagnosed at early stages and later causes death.
  • Sexual and reproductive health needs of widows may go unaddressed.


The literacy rate among the widows in Nagai District is very low.

  • Some of them have schooling up to V or VII standard, but they have not kept in touch with the knowledge and skill of language they have learned.
  • A few have finished X or XII standard, but have either lost their school record, or have not used it for employment.
  • The women do not know how to read or write; only a few can sign their names.
  • They find it difficult to absorb information from lectures.
  • They are unable to reflect on issues and give sufficient thought.
  • They fear expression.
  • They learn from TV more than from books, newspapers, or magazines.
  • Despite the lack of education, they have extraordinary common sense and alertness.
  • They are smart in grasping ideas provided their interests are triggered.
  • Many of them have latent abilities that need to be encouraged.