Haunting Photos Show Child Widows In Nepal

Photo: Courtesy of Poulomi Basu/VII Mentor Program.
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 and 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.
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Photo: Courtesy of Poulomi Basu/VII Mentor Program.
Tell us the story behind this photograph.
"It is difficult not to be affected by all of the women’s stories, talking, spending time, and photographing people whose lives have been robbed from them.

"Mamata, married as child, had no idea what to expect. She was looking forward to the wedding and wearing her gold embroidered sari and the music of the event, but was completely unprepared for what lay in store. Her husband would beat her, drink, have sex when he liked. She did everything in the household and raised two sons.

"When he died, she was shunned by society. Her life was effectively over at the age of 17. Her father said that it is better to have a husband that beat her than a widow for a daughter. It is just the way it is there. You are born in your father's house and you die in your husband's house.

"In Mamata’s case, she doesn’t know if it her life is better now or better when she was married, even though she had suffered at the hands of her husband. Indeed, so extreme is the enforced exile of these women that Mamata can’t attend the wedding of her own sister."

Photo caption: Mamata Kumari Mandal, 17 years old, with her two sons, ages two and six months. Mandal was married to a 30-year-old man who was electrocuted in Punjab, India.
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Photo: Courtesy of Poulomi Basu/VII Mentor Program.
How did you first become aware of the issue of child widows in Nepal?
"In 2013, I began my long-term project A Ritual of Exile, documenting the ways in which religious rituals are used to subjugate women across Asia. I began that project documenting the practice of Chhaupadi [the isolation of women from normal family activities while they are menstruating] in Nepal, and through this project, I came to know and understand more about the child widows. The stories of widows and the hardships they face is well-known, but particularly extreme."

Photo caption: Mandal's two-year-old son points to a photograph of his dead father. Mandal, 17, was married to a 30-year-old man named Shiv Pujan. When he was electrocuted at work, Mandal became a child widow. Now, she spends most of her time looking after her children in her home of Einerwa Village, Nepal.
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Photo: Courtesy of Poulomi Basu/VII Mentor Program.
What kind of hardships do these child widows face?
"Growing up in the Indian subcontinent, women are first under their fathers, then their husbands, and then their sons. There is no real freedom. When I turned 18, my mother asked me to run away from my family home and settle in another city to make it on my own in fear I might be facing the 'same fate' without any choices.

"The child widows of Nepal face that same fate, only worse. They are children who have been stripped of their childhood and choices. It broke my heart to see and hear all their painful stories, some of which sounded all too familiar.

"And if [being married as a child] is not bad enough, some widows are driven out of their homes, burnt alive, or murdered in some other way. Some are driven into prostitution."

Photo caption: The Mandal household in Nepal's Einerwa Village. Widow Mamata Kumari Mandal, 17; her sister Sanjani, 13; brother Ram, age nine; and parents Siya Ram Mandal and Kara Devi.
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Photo: Courtesy of Poulomi Basu/VII Mentor Program.
"He promised me he will marry me," Amerika Devi, who is 13 years old and seven months pregnant, told Basu.

Photo caption: Basu said Devi told her that Santosh Kumar Mandal, 17, promised he would buy her a mobile phone. He then took her to the fields and got her pregnant. Now, Mandal has fled to Qatar. His family does not want to accept Devi or her child.
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Photo: Courtesy of Poulomi Basu/VII Mentor Program.
Do you feel photography can spur people to action? What power do images have in changing the world?
"With this story, I hope we have managed to bring to notice some of the silent subjugation, violence, and exile these girls are facing every single day. It is extremely damaging to not only to these girls, these child widows, but also to society at large. It crushes their self-esteem completely and has deeper physical and emotional impact. It is a vicious cycle. It needs to stop.

"Photographs can make a huge difference. They can galvanize people into action or bring awareness to a particular problem, which can begin the process of change. Change can take a long time and often it takes a vast variety of people all fighting for the same cause."

Photo caption: Anjali Kumai Khang, 12 years old, looks at herself in the mirror and admires her new look. Villagers often marry off their girls before their menstruation starts. It is believed that if they do so, their immediate family will go to heaven.
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Photo: Courtesy of Poulomi Basu/VII Mentor Program.
Tell us the story behind this photograph.
"Rihana Shekh Dhafali is 17 years old. Rihana was married around a year-and-a-half ago, when she was 15 or 16 years old. She said she was often made to starve for four or five days in a row. Her mother-in-law tried to set her on fire once, but Rihana escaped and fled to India to her cousins. Her in-laws pleaded and apologized and took her back, only to repeat the crime in another 20 days.

"When she was seven months pregnant, she was set on fire by her husband and her mother-in-law. It was ostensibly because of her dowry, but in reality, it was because she was pregnant with a baby girl and the family knew that.

"Rihana said when she begged for release, her husband and mother-in-law said, 'We will let you go, but only in such a way that you will be no longer left in a position to be used by anyone else.'

"Her hands were tied and kerosene was poured over her body. The fire burned her belly from the waist down, taking the life of her unborn child. Her husband and his family had fled and will probably go unpunished for their crime. And now, because she has been abandoned, she is considered a widow, with a life ostracized by society to follow.

"Rihana said, 'Even before I was burnt, my husband used to physically abuse me. He would burn my private parts with lighted cigarettes. On that day, my husband asked me for a glass of water, then kicked me from behind, tied my hands, and with my mother-in-law, poured kerosene over my body and then set me on fire.'

"Rihana was admitted to the hospital under the pretext that she had to lie. She had to say how she was burnt by accident and not in her husband and family's attempt to murder her. The husband's family have now fled to India. Rihana was photographed at Bir Hospital, in Kathmandu, Nepal."
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Photo: Courtesy of Poulomi Basu/VII Mentor Program.
Sunita Yadav, 25, and Urmila Thapa, 25, are both widows.

Thapa was married at 15 and her husband died nine years ago. During her marriage and after her husband's death, Thapa told Basu that she was subjected to a lot of verbal abuse. She said her mother-in-law told her late husband, "Did all the Mongol girls die that you had to pick this one up?" Thapa now works as a cook in a nearby hospital and is self-sufficient.

"I want to educate my boy and girl and make them independent and not marry them off and expose them to the future that I had to suffer," she said.

Sunita Yadav was married when she was 14 years old, and her husband died four years ago. Yadav and her two children live with her in-laws. Yadav told Basu that she is constantly subjected to nasty words from family and neighbors.

"When I was married, I was Lakshmi, treated like a goddess of home, wealth, and prosperity," Yadav said. "Now that I am widow, I am aclachchini, a bad, evil omen."
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Photo: Courtesy of Poulomi Basu/VII Mentor Program.
Child marriage happens around the world. What is the impact on girls and what can we do to help end it?
"Broadly speaking, we must campaign for the rights of women at all levels of society, but we must understand the importance of grassroots organizations and the work they do to help affect individuals. Such organizations will work with communities to educate them about damaging practices and the rights of women in society — and their basic right to be treated equally to men.

"It is important that the whole of society is engaged in issues such as this. Ultimately, that change for women that we all seek must come from within the affected societies themselves. And of course, education of girls is crucial. The more educated girls are, the more they can assert their basic rights and determine the kind of life they want to live. They become leaders and, thereby, agents of change within their communities."

Photo caption: Mamata
Kumari Mandal, 17, was married to a 30-year-old man named Shiv Pujan. When he was electrocuted at work, Mandal became a child widow. Now, she spends most of her time looking after her children in her home of Einerwa Village, Nepal.
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Photo: Courtesy of Poulomi Basu/VII Mentor Program.
What is your advice for young people, particularly young women, who want to do the type of work you do?
"To do this kind of work, you have to be very strong and you have to be prepared to work very hard. There is still a gender imbalance in this kind of work, especially in Asia, so you have to be very committed to your work and focused in pursuing the kind of stories and subjects on which you want to work."

Photo caption: Sajani, 13, trying out her new wedding sari wih the help of her elder widow sister, Mamata. Mamata will not be allowed to attend or see the marriage of her own sister, just because she is a widow. Mamata cannot attend because of the fear that her presence may be a curse for the auspicious occasion of her sister's wedding.