Jamuna Dassi, Age 70 A Shameful Existence “I was barely 7 years old when I was made to marry a man who was 15 years older than me; he died only a few years after we were married. As a child Widow, I returned to my parental home and lived with my mother for 13 years. I was so young and was already a shame to myself and my family. I felt humiliated living there with a shaven head and was oftencompelled to beg for my food. To flee away from this indignity I left Bengal and moved to RadhaKund, Mathura to be among other Widows. Finally, I was away from the disgrace I felt from my family and community and found others like me and felt some purpose in life. I believe that by being in the service of Krishna, I will cleanse my past karma and be reborn with a better fate. In RadhaKund I begged for money for 40 years and I worked as a domestic help which was no less humiliating for me. I have no other choice. I appreciate Maitri, which has given me and other Widows respect and dignity. I am so grateful that I do not have to spend my last years as a beggar and can die in peace.” A tragic story of the immense shame many widows encounter from their families and communities, and Jamuna was only a child when she became a widow. Suddenly faced with great stigma and humiliation from those around her, she left to find a place where she could regain some of her dignity in religious service. Unfortunately, the compensation for religious service is menial, and cannot completely support any livelihood. Lakshmi Upadhaya, 50 Years From Tragedy to Violence “My parents married me off when I was very young and had my first child at age 15. My husband was a daily wage laborer and an alcoholic. Our family was very poor and my husband died early. After my sons got married, they and their families did not treat me well and I was often left to starve. I suffered many indignities because of my situation, most of which were by my very own family. When they started beating me, I left my home because I could not bear the dishonor shown towards me by my own sons and my daughter-in-laws. Family is supposed to help and support one another, but my family saw me as a grave burden. I came to Vrindavan 4 years ago and have stayed in dilapidated hovels ever since. To survive, I worked as a domestic help and am forced to beg at times for food. I do not have my family’s contact details and do not want to be in touch with them after how they treated me when I needed them most.” Lakshmi’s testimony shows how family can become disdainful and even violent towards widows after their husbands’ passing. Rather than help the widow through this life-changing event, often the family treats the widow as a burden. Unfortunately this attitude can lead to violence and abuse, and cuts off a widow from her once close family. For Lakshmi, she fled and cut ties with her abusive family, and has to support herself. Dhanwanti DhanwantiDhanwanti – at last she found her happiness Dhanwanti was a brideat fifteen and a widow at eighteen years of age. After three years of their marriage, her husband succumbed to malaria leaving behind Dhanwanti and their two- year-old daughter and four-month-old son. Illiterate and unskilled, Dhanwanti was economically dependent on her husband. After her husband’s death, she had no other choice but to return to her parents along with her two children. Dhanwanti’s life revolved around raising her two children. Her only goal in life was to see her children married and settled. She placed their happiness above her own. Her family was very accommodating and supported Dhanwanti in every possible way. Finally, when her children came of age, Dhanwantimanaged to choose suitable partners for them and funded both the weddings. Once her children had left the nest, she found herself lonely and purposeless. Fifteen years back, she decided to come to Vrindavan and devote rest of her life in pursuit of spirituality and peace. In Vrindavan, she rented a small room for a minimal amount and spent most of her time visiting temples in Vrindavan and singing devotional songs. However, as years passed by the room rent kept increasing beyond her means. Thankfully, in 2013, Maitri India welcomed her to MaitriGhar , a home for elderly and widow women. “This is a home for me where I can rest, keep my belongings safely, avail facilities like clean bedcovers, fan, filter water, hot water, clean bathroom etc. which otherwise I couldn’t afford. Dhanwanti and hundred other widows living in the home also are provided with nutritious mid-day-meal, cotton sarees, and regular health check up. Today, at the age of sixty-five, Dhanwantifinally lives for her own happiness. She chooses to live in Varindavan as she draws immense joy and happiness in visiting temples and singing bhajans (devotional songs). MaitriGhar has made it possible for her to continue to enjoy her stay in Varindavanand live comfortably, for which she is very grateful. Parvathi Rani, 78 Years Becoming a Burden “I was married at the tender age of 11. My husband was an alcoholic, a gambler and a womanizer. He did not support us financially. Life was very difficult with him, but was bad without him as well. When my husband died, he left me with the responsibility of taking care of our children. When my son got married, he and my daughter-in-law treated me with utmost disrespect, beat me, and gave me no food. I feared for my life. Hence, with great difficulty I left to find somewhere where I could find safety.” – Parvathi Rana, 78 years old As her life unraveled, Parvathi continued to care for her children after her husband’s death, but once they found spouses of their own, she had outlived her usefulness in their eyes and had become a burden. The fear of violence by one’s own children, even after having raised them and cared for them, becomes a tragic reality for many widows. Maya MayaMaya, a young mother of two had to face the humiliation of her husband re-marrying someone else after eight years of their marriage. Maya’s parents had married her off when she was barely in her teens. She never went to school and never learnt any skills that could help her become self-reliant. She was completely dependent on her husband who was a farmer. She helped her husband in farming. After her husband re-married, he forced Maya and her children to leave the house. Maya, having no other choice, sought help from her paternal family. With the help of relatives and hard work, Maya raised her two children and eventually got them married. “After my children got married, I felt I have fulfilled my duties as a mother”, she says. Often in Indian culture, once daughters are married, it is considered disgraceful for parents to live with their daughter’s family. Maya was certain she didn’t want to face any more social humiliation than what she has already suffered. So she decided to come to RadhaKund in 2013. RadhaKundis a small town in Uttar Pradesh state of India well known for its religious relevance and countless temples. Individuals distressed and dissatisfied with their lives often come here as pilgrims in pursuit of spirituality. A large number, 15,000 of them are widows, most of them disowned and abandoned by their family live in pathetic and pitiable living conditions in Varindavan and RadhaKund. Similar fate waited Maya whens she arrived in RadhaKund. But having no other choice she stayed back and lived on generosity of the temple goers and earned less than a dollar per day from singing devotional songs in temples. Thanks to Maitri India, sixty five-year-old Maya doesn’t have to live in a sub standard living conditions anymore. She is warmly welcomed to MaitriGhar, a home for elderly women and widows. Here, she is respected not humiliated, cared for not turned away, safe not vulnerable and valued not shamed. “ I am happy I have a comfortable place to live and people who care for me as their own. I also have friends in other women. Sometimes, after mid-day-meal we sit under cool breeze of fan and hear each other’s stories, some of them hilarious ones”, she laughs. The commendable strength of Shakti Dassi Sixty-year-old Shakti Dassi, an abandoned widow took refuge in RadhaKund, a small town well known as a holy place in Uttar Pradesh, India, about fourteen years ago. Having no other choice she survived by begging in and around the temples ofRadhaKund, until Maitri India came to her rescue. Shakti, meaning strength, is a jovial soul who has endured much humiliation, derision, and physical and verbal abuse with extraordinary grace and courage. The fact that she has lived through last one decade without any care or support from her family members speaks much about the determination and grit she posses. Life of a destitute surely was not what she had hoped for her greying years. However, after her husband became ill and passed away, her two sons and daughters, all married by then, went on to live separately. Shakti had hoped that her children would take good care of her instead they made her feel ‘unnecessary inconvenience’ and ‘a burden’. Her brief stay with her youngest son and daughter-in-law was emotionally very painful for Shakti. “I was treated less than human and not given food sometimes”, she says. One day, when she entered kitchen to cook for herself her daughter-in-law became furious and slapped her. She didn’t have any support in her son as well as he would always find a reason to rebuke and abuse her. At times, he would come home drunk and physically assault Shakti. One day, he hit her so badly that her head started bleeding. “That day, I decided to break away from my children”, she says. Dejected that the children she gave birth to and raised with such difficulty had completely abandoned her, she decided to move to RadhaKund. In Radhkund, she rented a bedin Dharmshala, a cheap and unhygienic motel room that often accommodates multiple beds in a large hall, and begged all day to raise enough money to pay towards her rent and food. “At first, I felt very sad and ashamed to beg but I didn’t have a choice”, she says. Begging wasn’t easy and enough, some days she had to go hungry. Three years back, Maitri India’s project Jeevan reached out to Shakti. The project provided her with nutritious mid-day-meals everyday along with hundreds of other abandoned widows of RadhaKund. Shakti received regular health check ups, treatment and essential items such as soap, shampoo, blanket and saree etc. In May 2015, Maitri India inaugurated MaitriGhar, a safe home for abandoned widows in RadhaKund where about sixty abandoned widows like Shakti have come to live. Ever since Shakti moved in to MaitriGhar, she is much healthier and happier. She busies herself in connecting to other widows, singing hymns and visiting temple for daily devotion. “I am so grateful for free and clean accommodation in MaitriGhar”, she adds, “ and I am happy I don’t have to beg anymore”. Sachi Sachi-Rani Chhachi was married at fifteen to a married man who was thrice her age. Her husband’s first wife was not able to bear children, for that reason he had married the second time. Chhachi had to face massive pressure from her husband and her relatives to bear children. Year after year, Chhachi failed to get pregnant. And gradually, the pressure to have children died down. In 2007, her husband passed away due to old age. After her husband’s death, Chhachi didn’t have anyone to turn to for support. She then decided to live in an Ashram in Varindavan, a city known for temples and religious relevance in Uttar Pradesh, India. She used to run errands for the Ashram and get food and shelter. As she progressed in age, she found even the simplestof task very daunting. Thanks to Maitri India’s MaitriGhar, a home for elderly and widow women, Chhachi stopped working in the Ashram and came to live in MaitriGhar. Seventy seven-year-old Chhachi is happy to live in a comfortable home where she no longer has to run errands for food and shelter. She is provided with essential facilities and nutritious mid-day-meals. It is natural for elderly widows living in MaitriGhar to have health issues and complains. MaitriGhar networks with local hospital and doctors to provide routine tests and treatment to the widow mothers. So far Chhachi has been in good health. In Maitri India, we are very grateful to all our supporters who enable us to house and care for hundred destitute and elderly widows [link to donation page for this project] like Chhachi in MaitriGhar. Savitra Dassi Enduring Heights Savitra Dassi has weathered the pressures of life especially after the death of her husband. Though she has three daughters and one son, she has been living in RadhaKund for the last 30 years due to the humiliation, abuse and terror she faced at the hands of her son. She could not even live with her daughters because of the Indian patriarchal and cultural belief that a married woman may not support her parents financially. Despite this reality, Savitra does try to visit her daughters occasionally. Hungry and destitute, Savitra’s faith in Krishna brought her to RadhaKund where she believes that if she prays devotedly to him here she will not be born with the same unfortunate fate in her next birth. Now Savitra lives under the shelter of Maitri where she is regularly provided with a mid-day meal, nutritional supplements and other basic necessities. Since coming to her aid, Savitra’s physical and mental health has drastically improved. Left alone to fend for herself, Savitra gingerly navigates life alone in Radhakund with the sustainable support from Maitri to make ends meet and stay afloat. Kalli Kunda Surrounded by people who loveand care Seventy seven-year-old KalliKundacherished her husband’s companionship from the age of fourteen as she was married at a very young age. But after her husband’s death about seventeen years ago, Kallifelt very lonely and dejected. Abandoned by her own children, she wandered the streets of Radhakund living on whatever she gathered from begging each day. Kalli’s husband used to work at a shop that made brass utensils and earned a meager income. They had three sons and one daughter. Since their family was extremely impoverished, her teenaged sons began working as daily wagers in a hotel to support the family. The family barely made ends meet. Things turned bad to worse for Kalli after her husband passed away. Her sons didn’t give her food to eat and many times, she was forced to beg for food from the neighbors. With nobody willing to support her or take care of her, she came to RadhaKundand has been here for about twelve years. RadhaKund is a small town in Uttar Pradesh, India known as a holy place where widows come in pursuit of spirituality and peace. In RadhaKund, life was still a struggle and far from being peaceful. She rented a small room with no electricity and lived on the generosity of the temple goers. Maitri India first noticed the plight of widows in RadhaKund and Vrindavan in 2010. Since then, Maitri India has reached out to thousands of widows with basic necessities like nutritious ready-to-eat meals, blankets, soaps and medical aids. For last few months, KalliKundahas been coming for the mid-day-meals provided by MaitriGhar, a safe home for abandoned widows in Radhakund. Maitri team also provides her regular health check ups and essential items like soap, shampoo, blankets and sarees. At first, Kalli spoke very softly and interacted very little with the project team or other widows in MaitriGhar but after some time she opened up to the team and shared her needs with them. On her request, the project decided to provide her one-liter milk everyday, which she fetches everyday when she comes for mid-day-meal. Now she loves to stay back after lunch, chat a bit with other widows, and take a little nap in MaitriGhar before heading to her rented room. “Thanks to Maitri, atleast I get one square meal everyday and do not have to go hungry”, she says. Maitri India is working towards expanding the facility of MaitriGhar toaccommodate more destitute women. When the project staff assured her a place in MaitriGhar after the expansion work is complete she smiled and said, “Yes, I would love to come and live here”. Now, Kalli doesn’t feel lonely as she has friends in other widows and she can always turn to Maitri India team whenever in need without feeling obligated. In MaitriGhar, she is surrounded by the warmth of family and friends. Though she speaks very little, her ease and comfort in being in MaitriGhar shows the freedom and acceptance she has experienced in MaitriGhar.