Writing by Patrick Keddie
Vrindavan, just over 100 miles south of Delhi, exudes the chaos and filth that afflicts many small Indian towns; cows ambling amid noisy traffic, animals rooting through rubbish, and the insistent smell of sewage from the open drains that line the roads.
However, it is also regarded as a holy city; where the deity Krishna spent his childhood, according to Hindu scripture. Thousands of destitute widows eke out a living in Vrindavan, earning just enough for a handful of rice and some chapatti flour, by chanting mantras to Krishna for several hours a day in government-owned bhajan ashrams or by begging in the streets.
The ‘city of widows’ seems an unlikely location for a New York-based fashion designer but on International Women’s Day this year Kopal visited Vrindavan and announced she was launching a new training project in partnership with Sulabh International, an Indian not-for-profit NGO. Vrindavan’s impoverished widows will eventually make clothes for the up-market designer.
The project is part of a concerted recent effort by NGOs to develop skills and harness the market; shifting the emphasis from charity towards enabling widows to become economically self-sufficient.
The Founder and Creative Designer of Kopal was born and raised in India. “I had been looking at various initiatives to support both women and artisans as a means to make my work not only more sustainable but also more meaningful and impactful in the lives of people in India” she says.
Kopal says she has a long-term vision to equip widows with the sewing, knitting, and creative skills to create high quality clothes, whilst also providing the women with a Western market “whereby they will be able to earn a sustainable and ongoing livelihood, compensated at above market rates”.
Sulabh will act as an intermediary for the project, providing the necessary materials and machines. Sulabh’s involvement with the widows of Vrindavan began in 2012 and they now oversee the running of seven government ashrams and one private ashram for Nepalese widows – around 800 widows in total.
In addition to providing healthcare and a stipend for the widows, Sulabh began a process of vocational training five days a week; teaching many of the women sewing skills, incense stick-making and literacy in Bengali, Hindi, and English. Many of the widows now make clothes, bags, garments for Krishna dolls, and incense sticks – typically receiving a quarter of the price when the goods are sold in the local markets.
Whilst widows are no longer be expected to throw themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre, in some traditional Hindu communities they are still often regarded as inauspicious and ‘untouchable’, in spite of their previously-held caste or class. This is particularly the case in certain Bengali communities, from which many of Vrindavan’s widows hail. Financial factors or petty family jealousies may also play a role, and the women may leave or be forced out because they are regarded as a burden.
Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of Sulabh International, has the quiet fervency of a missionary. He believes that the shift from charity to ‘productivity’ will be instrumental in changing the way India’s widows are viewed. “These women should be a resource of the country – not helpless people in society” says Pathak, insisting that “money is the change”.
In Meera Sahabhagini ashram, where Kopal announced her project in March, the floor is stained pink from Holi festivities and there are paint handprints on the wall. Around 250 widows live between Meera Sahabhagini and Radha Kunj ashrams, facing each other across a narrow street, through which cows shuffle and monkeys calculate their next move.
Inside the ashram, ninety year-old Manu Ghosh attends to the shrine. As she arranges offerings of candles and sweets to Krishna, dozens of widows maintain a rhythmic clatter of drums, bells, and cymbals as they chant the Hare Krishna mantra. The percussion slips from perfect accord into dissonance and back again, as the chants shift in tempo and intensity.
When Ghosh came to Vrindavan thirty-five years ago, she had no belongings except for the sari she was wearing. She was newly widowed and her family wanted her property, so they forced her to leave. She was supposed to receive a monthly pension of 500 rupees [$8] from the government but it was rarely paid, so her daily routine – over three decades – consisted of praying and begging for several hours each day.
Ghosh now receives a stipend of 2,000 rupees/month [$33] from Sulabh and says she now chants and performs prayers out of devotion, rather than a need to eat. “Now I am living as an old woman should” she says. Ghosh is too frail to learn to make clothes but she is impressed by the idea of vocational training, which she says could have helped her during her decades of widowhood.
Maya Mondal, 60, has been learning to stitch in Meera Sahabhagini since March 2013. She says she can now make a bag in a single day and she earns vital extra money from selling her products in local markets. The training has given her a sense of purpose.
Sulabh become cagey and evasive when asked if it is possible to speak to some of the widows directly involved in Kopal’s training. Vinita Varma, Sulabh’s program coordinator, says that the project is in its infancy and that the details are still being worked out. “We still have to teach them” she says. “They don’t know what is ‘dollar’, what is ‘America’, what is ‘New York’.”
So far around 25 women have started training with Kopal and the plan is to expand the number. Pathak admits that the widows’ labour will be cheap. “If you ask the widows to make clothes, they will charge less money to you. So I will encourage other designers to go to Vrindavan. I am hopeful that one day Vrindavan will be a hub of activities” says Pathak, “it has just started.”
The limits of the ‘market’
Similar business-led models have been attempted by NGOs before to help the impoverished widows in Vrindavan, with mixed success, and the scale of the problem is daunting.
“We wanted to create a friendly environment where we could build the self-esteem of the widows” says Linda Mandrayar, founder of The White Rainbow Project. “So we rented a building near one of the government-run shelters and created a crafting centre.”
The California-based not-for-profit organisation was launched around two years ago, with the help of the NGO Maitri India, after Mandrayar had made a film raising awareness of the issues faced by the thousands of widows in Vrindavan. Mandrayar’s training centre aims to give the neglected, impoverished widows emotional support, as well as the means to earn a living.
Mandrayar sources saris from the south of India and the widows re-stitch them into scarves. They also make necklaces and bracelets out of recycled paper beads. The products are then sold in the US at home parties, bible study groups, and on college campuses.
Mandrayar says that around 25 widows work for two hours, three days a week and are paid 300 rupees [$5] a week, alongside some medical help. It is not much money, though Mandrayar says that, “This is not based on how many products they can churn out, rather more on the time spent at our centre sharing and being ‘shown’ that they are not unworthy. It is a hand up and not a hand out. An effort at social entrepreneurship.”
She hopes to expand the project to 50 widows, so long as the flow of funds from sales of donations can keep pace with the widows’ salaries and the expenses of running the centre. The project is ongoing, although Maitri is no longer directly involved.
Other business-led ventures have been less successful. A necklace-making project launched by Maitri was forced to shut down after only eight months as the economic returns were not viable for the partnering company.
Winnie Singh, Executive Director of Maitri, sees this type of project as potentially useful but stresses that they have to done in the right way. “The empowerment starts with the woman getting to know her rights, and then accessing her rights and demanding her rights” she says. “Then you give her the skills, along with the opportunity to earn an income. It has to be side by side because if you give her a skill one day, and you give her an opportunity a year later, it’s lost its meaning.” It is also vital to ensure that the widows learn how to use the money wisely.
However, perhaps the benefits of social entrepreneurship will ultimately be limited because of the nature of the problem – many widows are too frail or unwell to work – and due to the scale of the issue. The exact numbers are not known, but it is estimated that there several thousand widows in Vrindavan and the surrounding areas. Many charities and NGOs remain heavily invested in charity.
Winnie Singh from Maitri is scathing about the government’s failure to take care of Vrindavan’s widows and to stamp out corruption. “They are supposed to be responsible for shelter, health, clothing – everything” she says. “We are just supposed to be supporting what they are doing, [but] we are assuming their role.”
Singh claims that Maitri no longer works with the government because they are often opposed to their ethos. She says they were particularly resistant to the idea of the widows becoming financially independent. “They just didn’t want the women to get empowered because then the women don’t listen to them.”
Destitute women still go to the government’s bhajan ashrams in huge numbers to chant for hours a day to Krishna, in exchange for a meagre amount of money, and many live in residential ashrams. Maitri’s Winnie Singh says that money is made from ashrams “at every point”.
The money earmarked for maintaining the buildings often disappears and money is commonly made by pilfering the desultory pensions awarded to the widows, typically between 300-500 rupees/month [$5-8]. “25-30% of the money is often taken away by somebody from the [ashram] management, as well as the government, as well as the bank” says Singh.
Greater numbers of widows are forced to go to the bhajan ashrams to make up for their missing money. The more widows there are chanting; the more donations come in from pious Hindus supporting the practice; and the older the women, the more generous the benefaction. Donations to these ashrams are also misappropriated. Therefore, a perverse business model exists for some government employees, who rely on large numbers of elderly widows attending ashrams in order to steal money.
The scale of the problems facing widows, including corruption and neglect by officials, means that many NGOs believe that social entrepreneurship projects are only a partial solution without significant governmental action and reform.
And whilst projects to train widows can deliver benefits, they can also provide opportunities for exploitation and corruption. “It is a good trend – helping people to help themselves” says Panca Gauda Das, President of Vrindavan’s ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) temple. “But they have to be careful not to simply think about money and the market; it should be about improving lives.”
[Photography by David Shaw. For more of his work see here]