KATHMANDU, NEPAL – Sarita Adhikari, 31, a widow, wears a dirty, green dress and faint lipstick. Although her husband died three years ago, a small red vermilion dot, a sign of marriage, adorns her forehead, challenging Hindu custom for widows.
For the first year after one's husband dies, a Hindu widow has traditionally followed a strict cultural etiquette. She may not apply any makeup or red vermilion on her forehead. She must wear only white clothes. She cannot visit public or religious places or attend auspicious ceremonies, including weddings and religious rituals.
Although these rules endure for only a year, community members continue to hold superstitious beliefs that they will incur bad luck if they see a widow in public. So they do not invite widows to social events.
Widows, especially those easily identified by their traditional white clothing, face discrimination and stigma, Adhikari says.
"I have faced many social problems soon after my beloved husband’s death," she says.
Adhikari says a friend called her 11 months after her husband died, when she still wore white, to help at a “puja,”a Hindu ritual in honor of the gods. But when Adhikari reached her friend's house, her friend’s mother-in-law remarked that it was not good to invite widows to auspicious occasions. Disheartened, Adhikari returned home.
"Unable to control myself, I closed the door and sobbed, looking at the white clothes,” she says. “My friend's mother-in-law’s words reverberated in my ears.”
Once she began wearing white, men also chased and brushed up against her in public buses, she says. They addressed her using foul language and teased her.
"That’s not all,” she says. “People used to call me a cursed one."
This changed in 2011, a year after her husband died, when she heard on a radio news program about widows wearing red instead of white. This was part of a campaign by Women for Human Rights, an international nongovernmental organization that fights discrimination based on marital status.
Traditionally, married women wear red, which symbolizes life and vitality. Custom forbids widows from wearing this color, visually segregating them from married women. Because marriage is a symbol of security, Women for Human Rights chose red for the campaign to make widows feel more secure.
After hearing the news program, Adhikari plucked up her courage to discard her widow’s garb and put on red clothes, bangles and lipstick. She says this change has made her feel more secure by hiding that she is a widow.
“After I started wearing red clothesand bangles and putting red, decorative marks on [my] forehead and lipstick, people do not gaze at me with ill intention," Adhikari says.
Nepalese widows, identified by their white clothing, have long suffered stigma and harassment by their family and society. To end this discrimination, the Women for Human Rights’ campaign has been inspiring widows across Nepal to wear red in public. The campaign also aims to raise awareness among widows’ families. Campaign leaders say widows now have the courage to demand more legal rights from the government, which has changed several laws.
There are nearly 500,000 widows in Nepal, according to the National Population and Housing Census 2011. More than 80 percent of Nepalese citizens practice Hinduism.
Of the 41,530 widows surveyed in a 2010 study by Women for Human Rights, 78 percent reported that they had faced violence from their husbands’ families. Out of these women, 80 percent had encountered rudeness and foul language, 12 percent had endured physical violence, and 8 percent had suffered sexual abuse.
Although no Hindu religious scripture requires widows to wear white, Hindu culture has imposed this practice on women for 1,600 years, says Prem Khatri, a culture and anthropology professor at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu.
“Widows were forbidden to blend in the society and to wear colored clothes,” he says. “In certain Hindu families, widows were burnt alive in the funeral pyres along with their husbands’ dead bodies.”
This practice, called “sati,” became illegal in Nepal in 1920, says Nirmala Dhungana, an associate professor at Tribhuvan University pursuing her Ph.D. in studies of Hindu women in the Kathmandu Valley. But widows still face verbal abuse.
“Though not being burnt physically, widows in Nepal are burnt mentally," Dhungana says.
Widows have to tolerate disgrace and harassment from their family and society, who use foul language against them, accuse them of wrongdoing, and criticize them if they laugh and talk with others, says Lily Thapa, the Women for Human Rights’ founder and president.
Some widows survive their year in white by secretly wearing color in private in their rooms, says Srijana Kafle, the Women for Human Rights’ regional coordinator.
“Widows are forbidden by their families to wear red clothes and to apply facial makeup,” Kafle says. “Driven by excessive desire, many widows dress as they like and put on makeup before going to bed. They revert back to their colorless selves in the morning.”
But this has been changing, thanks to the Women for Human Rights’ campaign for widows to wear red.
Women for Human Rights started campaigning for widows to wear red clothes in 2002 in Bardiya, a district in western Nepal, Kafle says. Since then, the campaign has helped more than 90 percent of all Hindu widows in Nepal to discard their white clothes.
"This news was prioritized by media, which influenced the society positively,” she says. “Since then, similar activities were carried out successfully in other districts too."
Women for Human Rights now has women's groups in 1,325 villages in 73 of Nepal’s 75 districts, Thapa says. Around 84,000 "single women" are members.
"As the word 'widow' sounds humiliating, it is replaced by the word of ‘single woman,’" Thapa says.
Women in urban areas especially hide their widowhood by wearing colors and putting on makeup in public, says Kunda Sharma, a Women for Human Rights member. Widows can avoid violence by wearing red clothes.
"The absence of red color is the distinctive identity of widows,” she says. “They have now started to put on red color to avoid harassment and discrimination."
The organization also aims to raise awareness among widows’ families, Kafle says.
"When we started targeting widows and their families in our interventions, the families were also given counseling to inculcate awareness,” Kafle says. “At present, the parents and guardians encourage their daughters and daughters-in-law to wear red clothes."
Amisha Sunar, 25, of Kathmandu, says her husband died in 2011. She had learned about the Women for Human Rights’ campaign through a TV news program before she became a widow.
"That news empowered me to wear red clothes," she says.
Sunar says tradition used to compel widows to wear white clothes, but now it is a woman’s choice. Thirteen days after her husband’s death, her brother, inspired by the Women for Human Rights’ campaign, bought her a long, red dress and cotton trousers.
Sunar smiles as she looks at her black and red dress that she wears.
"Now, I want to wear [a] red crystal necklace,” she says. “I will buy it and wear [it]."
Uma Rupakheti, 34, from a village just outside Kathmandu, started wearing red before learning about the campaign in 2003. But she says learning about it inspired her to become a member of Women for Human Rights.
Rupakheti lost her husband when she was 20 years old. She discarded her widow’s attire 12 days after her husband's death because her father said the white clothing made him sad. She says the change also helped her to cope with her husband’s death.
"The pain of separation from my husband decreased when I started wearing [clothes] like a normal woman since then,” she says, “and I now feel secure.”
Still, some widows choose to keep wearing their white clothes despite the broad reach of the campaign. Hari Maya Ghimire, 65, from Dhankuta, a district in eastern Nepal, continues to wear white after becoming a widow seven years ago.
“It would be better to continue the traditional culture to wear white clothes by the widows,” she says. “I feel like [I’m] half-dead. That’s why I don’t want to wear colorful clothes. I would prefer to die with white color alone.”
Thapa, Sharma and Khatri say the Women for Human Rights’ campaign for widows to wear red clothes and makeup is positively changing society’s attitudes and emboldening widows to demand more legal rights.
"Age-old malpractices rooted in the Nepalese society are gradually changing for the better," Sharma says.
With this new courage, thousands of widows have advocated during the past decade for the government and other policymakers to improve their legal rights, Thapa says.
In 2001, the government revoked the requirement that widows had to be 35 years old and prove they practiced celibacy after their husbands died to claim their property rights, Thapa says. In 2005, the government stopped requiring widows to obtain consent from a male family member to get passports. In 2010, it initiated a monthly allowance for every widow of 500 Nepalese rupees ($6).
The allowance, although small, empowers widows to buy items without begging their families, Sharma says.
The 2010 provisions also included legal services, rehabilitation of financially and socially helpless widows, and scholarships for widows’ children in government schools, says Upendra Prasad Adhikari, speaker for the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, who is not related to Sarita Adhikari.
The ministry also established in 2010 facilities to assist gender-based violence victims in all of Nepal’s districts. The offices address social, psychological, economic and sexual violence against widows.
"Gradually, some changes are taking place,” Thapa says. “But yet there are more changes to be made."