When photographer Poulomi Basu
turned 18, she said her mother begged her to run away from home and make a life for herself in a faraway city, so that she would not face "the same fate."
Both Basu's mother and grandmother had been married and widowed young; in her native India, that meant they could wear only white and were forced to atone for the rest of their lives.
"Widows are regarded as bad omens — as witches, as 'man-eaters.' They bring bad luck. They are paying for sins committed in a past life. The Hindu scripture, the Vedas, is clear on this point," Basu told Refinery29.
"As long as I can remember, my grandmother only wore white saris, even until her deathbed. My grandmother became a widow when she was in her late 20s and there was not single day since my grandfather’s death that she wore colorful clothes...she also followed several rituals in penance," Basu said.
"When I was 17, I lost my father. It was my mother’s turn to follow the rituals and wear white. I resisted the rules, for I did not want my mother to wear white and pay for sins that she never committed in the first place! I was enraged. I made sure she never followed them to the core. However, she never wears red, another forbidden color for widows," she added.
It was only after becoming a photojournalist and traveling to Nepal that Basu would meet other widows resigned to the same fate. But these widows were children.
"They are children who have been stripped of their childhood and choices," Basu said. "The women are so young when they are married, they have no idea what lies in store. One woman we spoke to was looking forward to the music and dancing of her wedding, but had no idea what would come after, no idea what it meant to be a 'wife,' let alone a 'wife' in such a patriarchal setup."
Worldwide, more than 700 million women alive today were married before the age of 18; of those, one in three were married before the age of 15, according to UNICEF
. Often, girls are forced to marry men much older than they are and must leave school. You can read more about the plight of child brides here
, as well as the story of one girl who fought to get divorced
at age 14 so she could continue to pursue her education.
"[Child widows] are the legacy of child marriage, something we know less about. That is a particularly severe injustice. In this case, someone is being robbed of their childhood and their life thereafter. It is a vicious cycle with the children married to older men that leads to a life of stigma when that husband dies," Basu said.
"A child widow's job is to repent and atone. They live a life virtually devoid of pleasure and must wear no other color but white. They must eschew jewelry, meat, fish, and social gatherings, even with family. Temples are off limits and they are not allowed to remarry. They must not leave the house or look men in the eye, as it is said that a widows gaze will bring bad luck," Basu added.
Since 2013, Basu has captured and conveyed the lives of these child widows as part of her project, A Ritual of Exile
. Her work
has been published in The Guardian, The New York Times
NPR, among many others, and she has also worked for human rights groups, such as UNESCO, Save the Children, WaterAid, and Crisis Action. She spoke to Refinery29 while on assignment in China. Photo caption: Anjali Kumari Khang, a 12-year-old girl living in the Saptari district of Nepal. "I am not happy. I do not want to get married. I hope my husband gets a job in a foreign city. Then, I can come back to my mother's home and stay for as long as I want to."
Child marriage is rampant in this part of Nepal. Girls are seen as a burden and an additional mouth to feed. Villagers often marry off their girls before their menstruation starts — it is believed that if they do so, the immediate family will go to heaven.