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Feb 2016 back issue
Angels  of Ghost Street
by Xavier Zimbardo
In the world, 115 million widows live in poverty and 81 million have suffered physical abuse. Some 40 million of the world's widows live in India. While 8 per cent of women in India are widows, only 2.5 per cent of men are widowers, due to the fact that men usually remarry. Many women suffer inequities and atrocities once they lose their husbands. Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of the powerful organization Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement, with 50 000 volunteers, has already undertaken a long struggle for the restoration of the untouchables. He launched the fight for widows in August 2012. Pathak has assigned a suitable monthly pension to more than 750 women in five ashrams. He has also organised a series of welfare measures in the past two years. But first of all he listened to them with love and care, respect and dignity. Dr. Pathak, a disciple of Gandhi, knows it will take a long path of patience to succeed. He knows that he will also have to win the people's support and the sympathy of the
media. So he has embarked on spectacular and colourful demonstrations. Widows have urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to introduce and pass a Widow Protection Bill. We must witness, encourage, and support them. "No woman should lose her rights when she loses her husband." (UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon). They should no longer live the plight of these widows. It is not the widows who should live in shame, but ones who are allowing this to happen.
Widows singing in an ashram at Vrindavan.  As widows, women suffer some of the most severe subjugation of their whole lives.   
To encourage them to no longer beg, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak bought sewing machines to enable them to secure a share of their income themselves.
Dr. Pathak urged teachers to teach them to sew, make incense sticks and also read and write.
   Dr. Pathak dancing with widows and untouchables in Vrindavan.  They are traditionally excluded from religious ceremonies and festivals.  This is where Dr Pathak plans to change public opinion.
One year ago, it was hard to see more than melancholy sadness, today, even though certain difficulties remain for the widows, souls glisten and victory blooms.
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On their benches of silence, widows often wait and hope for nothing better thn death.
One can easily recognize them when they venture out onto the streets, begging and looking for some food, hidden behind white veils and a posture more self-effacing than discreet.
Widows in an ashram. They are like black cats! A chance encounter in the morning brings bad luck.
A widow is sometimes called "pram" or creature, because it was only her husband's presence that gave her human status.  Widows are not welcome at the rituals and ceremonies that form an integral part of Indian life, including weddings and birth ceremonies.
In some cases even her shadow was considered polluting or offensive to "cleaner" members of society. Washer men wouldn’t wash their clothes, no shop keeper would sell them things.
For the first time, in  2013, with the support of Dr. Pathak and social workers of SULABH INTERNATIONAL, hundreds of widows celebrated Holi, the festival of colours, which is forbidden to them.   
The future of  millions of girls depends on this rising awareness. A breeze of hope begins to  blow.
In 2014, Dr. Pathak and widows welcomed young French women who came from ostracized Paris suburbs to visit them in an ashram as a sign of solidarity.
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