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Widows in India

Widows in India still undergo ritual humiliations and extreme ostracism.

Now 85, a widow hobbles down the streets of Vrindavan, a city in the north of India, her gnarled fingers cupping a broken bowl, begging for her living while she waits for death to claim her.

Its estimated 33 million widows in India, the country with the largest widow population in the world. Among them, at least 20,000 sit on the banks of the river Ganges and beg for alms. Vrindavan and Varanasi, holy cities in the north of India and two of the country's most sought-after pilgrim centers, have become home to the husbandless.

The preponderance of widows in the two holy cities can often be couched in the euphemistic terms of religious reverence. According to traditional Hindu belief, those who die in a pilgrim center are freed from the eternal cycle of life and death and even attain Moksha, or emancipation.

But, few widows choose to spend or end their lives as beggars in the holy cities of India. Many end up in these cities because they are thrown out of family homes by their children or abandoned by their in-laws as evil women who caused the death of their husbands.

Since women in India are often married off at a young age instead of being educated, they usually lack the skills and knowledge to fend for them-selves economically and fight for their basic rights.

When they arrive at Vrindavan and Varanasi, the widows find shelter in the local ashrams or religious institutions that were built almost a century ago. Today, the cramped, leaky spaces--administered by local government officials--accommodate about three women each, who sleep on torn sacks.

They receive meager rations of rice and lentils only if they spend six hours singing devotional songs at the ashram. Young widows are often lured into sex in exchange for more food or money.