06/01/2006, 00.00
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Widows still pressured to throw themselves on husbands' pyres

The Sati custom, which requires widows to throw themselves on their husbands' pyres, was abolished 175 years ago but there have just been two cases in as many months. The choice to leap into the flames is not voluntary: women are pressured or drugged.

New Delhi (AsiaNews/SCMP) – The recent death of two widows on their husbands' funeral pyres has sparked renewed debate about how to put an end to this custom. The so-called Sati Hindu custom, which requires a widow to burn herself alive on the pyre of her husband, was banned by British colonizers 175 years ago because it was held to be "impious and inhuman". But it persists in rural areas.

On 18 May, Vidyawati, a young widow of 35, threw herself onto the pyre of her husband in Rari Bujur village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Other villagers and her three brothers-in-law looked on, but police said no one tried to stop her. Within minutes, Vidyawati was dead, leaving behind three children. "Her husband's family made her feel that as a widow, her life would be so dishonourable and unbearable that she was better off committing sati," police Superintendent Siraj Ahmed Khan said. Barely one month earlier, in the eastern part of India, another widow, Sita Devi, 77, also died on her husband's pyre.

According to Hindu texts, Sati is supposed to be voluntary but in reality women are submitted to physical, psychological or social pressure. "Women are pressurized into it or drugged or dragged onto the pyre. Often it's because no one wants to bother looking after an old widow or her family wants to grab the dead husband's property," said Girja Vyas, chairwoman of the National Commission for Women.

To put an end to Sati, a bill should be debated in the federal parliament in July. The law should protect women from psychological pressure and will hold families responsible if they could have stopped women from committing Sati but did not bother to do so.

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