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Franciscan nuns restore widows’ self-confidence, dignity in India

Tamil Nadu Widows Federation includes members of the Nazareth Neela Widows Association. (Photo supplied)

In India, women are generally seen as the light of the home. The worship of Hindu goddesses bears witness to the reality of the respect and recognition given to women in Indian culture. Yet, women suffer discrimination and abuse, as evident from gender inequality.

Becoming a widow is a profound personal tragedy, marking a life of stigmatization, dehumanization, loneliness, and despair. Deprivations and negative social restrictions are placed on them and their activities.

Widows and single women struggle a lot to provide even necessities such as food, shelter, and education for their children. The widows experience unending hardships and trauma, which curtail the joy of living.

A young woman who lost her husband expressed, "When my husband died, I wanted to die with him, but I did not do so because I have my children, and I need to take care of them. I realized that I belong to another house for my parents, whereas for my in-laws, I am a burden on the family economy, and hence, my children and I are treated as unwelcome guests."

"Suddenly, I am exposed to the pain of bereavement, loneliness, discrimination, despair, and deprivation. She added that I am "prohibited from participating in auspicious functions such as marriages, housewarmings, etc. because I am considered inauspicious.”

This reality of the widows urged the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM) nuns of Ooty Province in Tamil Nadu, southern India, through the intervention of Sister Stella Baltazar to form a group of single women and widows under the name "Nazareth Neela Widows’ Association" at the first convent of the FMM, Ooty.

They have gathered monthly in Nazareth convent for the past eight years, where FMM nuns motivate them about human rights with a special focus on women's rights. Each member has a savings passbook with small savings. This creates an ambiance on the campus where they have a zone of freedom to be themselves, to feel free, to think and share their feelings, as well as their suffering, joys, and pains.

The group started with 250 widows, but now it has increased to 700 in Ooty Town and has extended to ten other communities in Ooty Province, covering about 1500 women.

Activities of the Nazareth Neela Widows’ Association include regular monthly meetings, monthly individual small savings, promoting a healthy attitude towards each other and others, and building strong bonds among themselves.

They participate in public rallies to create awareness about keeping the city clean and caring for creation by planting trees in common places.

The association motivates them to celebrate at least three functions yearly: International Women’s Day on March 8, International Widows Day on June 23, and the annual Christmas celebration.

"We have taken a bold step in bringing about cultural transformation in the life of the widow. As per the culture of India, a widow is considered an ill omen since she is deprived of auspicious symbols such as sandal paste, red marks on the forehead, and wearing jasmine flowers and bangles," said Sister Andrews Mary, FMM, one of the nuns who animates the association.

These auspicious symbols are ceremoniously removed at the burial ceremony of the husband, and she is kept aside from taking part in any family and public functions.

"In this regard, we have initiated a change by giving back to the women the auspicious symbols of the red mark on their forehead, jasmine flowers, and bangles in a public ceremony in the town for all the widows by the district mayor," the nun said, adding, "It restored in the widows their self-confidence and courage to walk in public without fear or shame."

All these activities have brought some significant transformation to the lives of most of the widows, both in terms of their self-appraisal and their image in public. Several of them have expressed that after joining the Nazareth Neela Widows Association, they can face society, accept the situation of their lives, and have gained the courage to move forward into the public.

The Nazareth Neela Widows Association is a member of the Tamil Nadu Widows Federation, under the guidance of the Jesuit-organized Network of Widows at Nagapattinam.

During various monthly meetings, important celebrations, and state conventions, the Tamil Nadu Widows’ Movement has placed a few demands on the government, especially to establish a separate "Welfare Board" for the widows and "single women," which would help them in tapping the resources of the government for the benefit of their children.

"I had the opportunity of accompanying the widows with the coordinator and director of the Tamil Nadu Widows’ Federation to Delhi, the capital of India," Sister Andrews said.

"We were fortunate enough to meet the National Commissioner for Women, Mrs. Rekha Sharma, and we emphasized the importance of giving widows their due place in our society and culture. It was the most wonderful and emotional experience for some of the widows to travel by flight for the first time and receive a favorable response to their demands," the nun said.

The Tamil Nadu government has accepted some of the demands of the Widows’ Federation, such as establishing a separate "Welfare Board" for the cause of single women and widows. This gives a ray of hope for them to know the different facilities available and to have easy access to getting their benefits from the government.

The Nazareth Neela Widows Association focuses on the oppressive culture and its roots in the patriarchal culture. It awakens in them the quest to rise above it and affirm their rightful place in the family and society.

"I feel privileged to be part of this movement in empowering them as well as witnessing the gradual change taking place in the widows and the greater acceptance they enjoy in society," said Sister Andrews. – With inputs from Franciscan Missionaries of Mary


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