In all societies, the loss of the marital partner through death necessarily involves several changes in the financial arrangements and subsequent economic management, and these are even more so if the dead spouse was the primary earner in the family.

In general, women tend to be worse affected, largely because of the gender construction of society: in almost all societies, men are disproportionately likely to hold assets of all kinds and engage in paid work, relative to women.

The well-known gender gaps in occupational distribution and pay add to the discrepancy. So a wide range of patriarchal institutions, most particular patrilineal inheritance, patrilocal residence and the gendered division of labour in a society, which affect all women, also affect widows and make their situation that much more difficult than for widowed men.

But in India the gender dimensions of this are much stronger than in most other countries — and they affect many more women. There are at least 55 million widows in India, probably more. That is around the same as the entire population of countries like South Africa and Tanzania, more than all the people in South Korea or Myanmar.

An ordeal

It is well known that in India widows tend to face many difficulties and deprivations because of negative social attitudes towards them and social restrictions that are placed upon them and their activities. They are subject to patriarchal customs, religious laws and widespread discrimination in inheritance rights. Many suffer abuse and exploitation at the hands of family members, often in the context of property disputes.

Remarriage is much less common than among male widowers, and often explicitly or implicitly forbidden by local communities and prevalent cultural norms. Widows are often perceived as “unlucky” and subject to various kinds of discrimination and even ostracism.

Issues about the division of the marital property and the rights of the widowed over such property, relative to the rights of children, are also significant. In many instances, women are denied automatic rights over the property of the dead spouse, and are therefore forced to reply upon the largesse of inheriting children. In families with less assets and incomes they are also more prone to being abandoned or forced to reside in ashrams and similar refuges, as testified by the well-known presence of widows in Benaras. Among the extremely destitute in India, widows are disproportionately represented.

Old and widowed

Chart 1 shows that the incidence of widowhood is particularly higher among elder women — and this has increased in the period 2001-2011. This may be unsurprising given the higher life expectancy of women compared to men. But widows are disproportionately represented among the elder population also because male widowers have a higher propensity of remarriage.

Curiously enough, the presence of widowhood varies quite sharply by state, as shown in Table 1. Some southern states (such as Puducherry, Tamil Nadu and Kerala) show disproportionately high rates of ever-married women are widows, even though they do not have higher rates of male mortality. Conversely, states with worse human development indicators like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, show smaller proportions of ever-married women as widows.

Widowhood may generate an increased propensity to participate in paid work. Data from the Indian Human Development Surveys suggest that there has was an increase in women’s work participations rates for women with dissolved marriages between 2004-05 and 2011-12. The increase was the greatest among separated and divorce women, but it was also substantial among widows, while it remained almost stagnant at a very low level among married women.

Overall, public policy has largely ignored the specific problems of widows in India. But given the numbers involved, this exclusion is likely to prove costly not just for the women concerned but for society in general.