• January 31, 2014

She Carries the Weight of the World

Jessica Benko
Amy Toensing

With support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, photographer Amy Toensing and writer Jessica Benko spent several weeks living among the thousands of widows who populate the holy Braj region of rural Uttar Pradesh in northern India. There they investigated the taboos and social structures that leave many widows and their children struggling to survive.

The sandstone steps of the Keshi Ghat lead into the swift current of the Yamuna, the second most sacred river in Hinduism, an important stop for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who visit the holy town of Vrindavan each year. At the foot of the ghat is a line of wooden barges strung with colorful flags, captained by teenage boys who use poles to guide the boats to sand bars in the river where those willing to pay can bathe away from the trash strewn banks.

Picture of a young girl selling flowers
Gunjan works from sunrise to sunset selling flowers along the Yumuna in Vrindavan, India. Gunjan stopped going to school after her father died three years ago and her family started depending on her wages to survive.

Two young boys stand knee deep, tossing stacks of magnets tied with string into deeper water and dragging them across the river bottom, hoping to capture coins tossed in by the bathers. A small girl in a threadbare pink tunic patrols near the beached boats, steadying a tray of red, orange, and yellow marigolds balanced on her head. As a family climbs into one of the boats, she clambers onto the one next to it, leaning across the wooden rail to accept 5 rupees (about 8 cents) for a small cup of the flowers, which will be offered to the river in prayer.

Gunjan’s older sister Tanuja heats milk for tea while their mom tries to calm their younger brother Shiva. At 13-years-old and on the cusp of puberty, Tanuja spends most of her time in their 6x10 foot home because the streets are considered dangerous for an unmarried girl at her age.
Gunjan’s older sister Tanuja heats milk for tea while their mom tries to calm their younger brother Shiva.

The flower girl is 8 years old and her name is Gunjan, a Sanskrit word that describes the pleasant humming sound of a bumblebee. She spends her days—all the daylight hours, every day of the week—hovering at the river’s edge, collecting a few rupees at a time from as many bathers as she can. She’s a beautiful child, quiet, not aggressive but vigilant for new arrivals to the banks, and many of the visitors choose her flowers. She buys marigolds every few days—200 rupees for a bag as wide as her arms can reach, 100 rupees for sack as wide as her tiny shoulders—and arranges them in small bowls made of pressed leaves, each topped with a wick soaked in ghee that she can light expertly with a match, even on the windiest of days.

When school is out, a gaggle of other children come down to the river banks to play. They draw a sort of hopscotch court in the sand with a stick for a game they call titi, tossing a rock to a farther box with each turn, hopping in every square that hasn’t already been captured. When they’ve gotten through the whole board, they make it harder for themselves, tilting back their heads and fixing their gaze up at the sky as they jump.

A photograph of Gunjan’s deceased father sits on a shelf in the family’s one-room home in Vrindavan, India. He died three years ago from a septic infection after his brother stabbed him during a fight over property.
A photograph of Gunjan’s deceased father sits on a shelf in the family’s one-room home.

Gunjan directs her friends in her small, hoarse voice, moving the game along briskly. Her attention to her work never wavers, though, and each time a new group shows up at the foot of the ghat, she sweeps her flowers back onto her head, and strides away to greet them. On a quiet day like this one when no one else bothers to compete with her, she might still bring home 100 or 150 rupees (about $1.60-$2.40) after the cost of flowers—more than many adult unskilled day laborers make—and on a busy, auspicious holiday, she can make quite a bit more. And that’s the source of one of the biggest dangers to Gunjan’s future.

She lives with her mother Meena, and three siblings—sisters Tanuja, 13, and Hema, 5, and brother Shiva, 3—in a 6ft x 10ft room tucked into a maze of buildings up the hill from the river. Her father died three years ago from a septic infection after being stabbed by his brother over a property dispute. Meena is illiterate and can only get occasional work as a day laborer, so 8-year-old Gunjan has assumed responsibility for supporting the family of five. She hasn’t been to school in a year or maybe two.

Gunjan hugs her mom Meena in the alley outside their home in Vrindavan, India. Her 13-year-old sister Tanuja stands in the doorway.
Gunjan hugs her mom Meena in the alley outside their home in Vrindavan, India. Her 13-year-old sister Tanuja stands in the doorway.

The flower-selling work falls to Gunjan because although her older sister Tanuja looks much younger than 13, she is on the cusp of puberty and in their conservative neighborhood, where women must veil their faces in the presence of male relatives, it is considered dangerous for her to be out of the house. If her mother is able to get a day of work, Tanuja strings prayer beads at home while watching after Hema and Shiva. When her mother doesn’t find work, Tanuja has the chance to go to school, the only acceptable destination for her outside the home. She loves school, but she knows she will be married before long and she worries what her mother will do without her help once she is taken away from home to her new husband’s village.

“If you give me money, I can get her married,” Meena pleads with us another day, apparently unaware that our instinct would be to give her money to delay Tanuja’s marriage, rather than encourage it. But her rationale, in these circumstances, is understandable. If a girl is past puberty and unmarried, it is considered a mark of a family’s bad morals, which can be perversely interpreted as justification for sexual assault. From Meena’s perspective, the only way to protect Tanuja is to get her married as soon as possible, though without any money from her family, the only suitors will be men so undesirable that they have no chance of attracting a bride with a dowry.

Gunjan’s older sister Tanuja tries on her best outfit prior to going to a family wedding. At 13-years-old and unmarried, her mother keeps her inside most of the time for fear that she will get hurt or taken in the streets.  In conservative parts of India and especially in their neighborhood, a girl is expected to get married at puberty but her mother, a widow, will struggle to find any of her three daughters respectable suitors without money for the dowries.
Gunjan’s older sister Tanuja tries on her best outfit prior to going to a family wedding.

Gunjan’s future looks no brighter. Unlike Tanuja, she wasn’t in school long enough to learn to read and write before their father died, and now there is little chance for Gunjan to get back into school, not while her income is so vital for the family. She’ll continue selling flowers until she, too, is approaching puberty. When that happens, it will be Hema’s turn as flower girl.

There’s no indication that the cycle is about to break. Meena, too, was married as a young teenager, kept strictly in the house by her husband, dependent on him, and then rejected by his family after he was killed. Her own family, in a village hours away, has six brothers without enough resources to split among themselves, much less with her. Her girls are headed down the same path, and because of their poverty, they are likely to be married to much older men, who may leave them as unskilled, illiterate widows with young children, as their mother is now.

Picture of children selling flowers
Gunjan and a friend walk their route home from Keshi Ghat where they sell flowers to visitors for prayer offerings to the Yumuna.

But tomorrow, dawn will break over the river and over little Gunjan, standing at the water’s edge with a tattered pink sweater against the winter chill, one arm wrapped around her waist, elbow propped on her hip, another day’s bright flowers resting in the palm of her hand.

There are 35 million widows in India, where the marriage of girls to much older men makes widowhood a common outcome, and many are shunned as bad luck and can lose their status and ability to support themselves. Find out more about Benko and Toensing’s project here.

There are 34 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Hari
    June 8, 2014

    I am saddened by such situations. I am confused at situations like these about offering help. I could make enough money to help, spread word/ awareness. !!

  2. sonu rani
    March 30, 2014

    Appreciation for your efforts. Strict law and a bit honesty to implement is all that is required. Indian people are used to boost up but as is comes to work their personal leisure is the only thing they think about no matter if its exploitation of others right or it strengthens a social taboo

  3. Sandra
    March 21, 2014

    Speechless. I grew up poor and I really feel for those people. The saddest part is that the children have to abandon school, when education might be the only way out of poverty.

  4. JayneH
    February 9, 2014

    Prashanth, you speak of “rights” for these women and children… do they know ‘their’ rights? Do they care? Seems to me education would be the most valued tool.

  5. Hema
    February 5, 2014

    This shows not the problem of system of country but the inside of how patiently a widow & her children suffer the pains…A woman who could be so strong, one day will have to stand for her rights else nothing is permanently possible to correct the situation …God give power!

  6. Prashanth
    February 4, 2014

    Its sad to read the article. I am an Indian myself and have come across many stories like this. It saddens me but would help if there is hope of change. India (my country) boasts of many accomplishments but its own back yard is filled with poverty and there is nothing the govt does to uplift these people and the main problem is that the people themselves don’t want change. They accept the situation like its their fate and no one can change it. We can help by providing donations but once the people surrounding her know she is receiving financial support, they start exploiting them. If only women like the mother of Gunjan and the other 35 million can stand up to their rights ..which they can only do when the socio-economic fabric of the country changes. The problem is not just women. Its the society and the men who think its their birth right to violate women.

  7. chris burton
    February 2, 2014

    If you feel you would like to donate funds to help,send funds directly to Jatan,Rajestan,UdiapourThey have a web site and are working on the street,for the people,and very dedicated to the cause.Work with Unicef,and totally trustworthy.

  8. chris burton
    February 2, 2014

    Totally understand the situation,we a team went to Rajestan and experienced the plight.Only last year.There are organizations ,there. However the difficulty,is ,problems are overwhelming ,WE worked with Unicef and a local Org. called Jatan.built WC,s and assisted at local schools,Made us feel good ,until we walked away.Sending another team,in a month or so.But i feel India needs to look at its self,instead of hosting Olimpic games,take care of your people first,We can help,don’t send money go help.And maybe the Indian Government,may get embarised ,enough to pay attention.I,m canadian,and feel so much for the situation. Rasamand ,a rural area ,no sewage ,few schools,Tons without electric,running water,transport,unless you count a 50cc motorbike for a huge family,transport. There is so much wealth there and so much poverty.Go to Dehli,and just see.Its sad!

  9. Subodh Tiwari
    February 2, 2014

    The government has introduced means such as Mid Day Meal scheme, Free schooling for elementary education, called SSA. So efforts are on, equal efforts for employment generation and population control will eventually lead to some solution in circumstances.

  10. Susan welchman
    February 1, 2014

    An valiant effort to help us understand customs of the culture when there is little or nothing we can do to change it. Thank you for bringing us this story and images.

  11. Jay Shah
    February 1, 2014

    Touching story. l was wondering ( based on your experience) if you could comment on education system for preteens? In other words, whether the school (/ institutions) realize the vicious nature of curbed opportunities. Thank you.

  12. Francina Tannuri
    February 1, 2014

    Muito dolorida a história de Gunjan e sua família. Retrata a saga das mulheres indianas: mulheres que carregam nos ombros “o peso do mundo”, desde a infância.
    Meninas de olhos tristes, mas se percebe que entre elas há carinho, afeto e amor, talvez mesmo uma forma de auto-proteção!Se pensarmos no sofrimento destas crianças, que desde cedo mantêm o sustento da casa, nos perguntamos mesmo:- se Deus existe, o que ele está fazendo? ou melhor, porque nós permitimos esta e outras tantas violências?

  13. yino paoly
    February 1, 2014

    admiro mucho ala gente k se gana la vida trabajando y no hurtandola vale un mundo

  14. Sanaie
    February 1, 2014

    a heartbreaking; the hopelessness is palpable. saddened for the these young girls.Totally unfair to the women of these countries to be advantage in such a way…Change in social culture is urgently needed to this people or the cycle will never end.

  15. Tony Higgins
    February 1, 2014

    One day they my have to fight for there rights a equals to me. I was them the best. Women are the stronger sex. Look what they bring to the world, One day there men folk will realize that too.

  16. Eileen Mulcahy
    February 1, 2014

    How can we help?

  17. gelai
    January 31, 2014

    This article is a good source of knowledge for me as Asian History teacher…..

  18. chinmaydeep
    January 31, 2014

    Thanks a lottt……….

  19. Jessica Benko
    January 31, 2014

    It is heartening to read comments wishing to aid Gunjan and her family. They have no bank account and there is not a safe or reliable way to transfer them money directly, but we did connect them with a local woman to help them navigate the government system that might be able to provide them with grocery subsidies and possibly a small widow’s pension.

    As some commenters have noted, Gunjan is only one of many girls in similar circumstances. The challenges facing them are knotted up in social structures that make money only one of their difficulties.

    I think the best way forward is to raise your voice and put pressure on lawmakers wherever you are in the world to support efforts to educate all children, to prevent child marriage, and to reject violence against women.

    The UN Women branch (unwomen.org) and the Global Fund for Women (globalfundforwomen.org) offer a look at many projects around the world and you can learn more about specific organizations at charitynavigator.org or givewell.org.

  20. Nienke
    January 31, 2014

    Thank you for sharing this story, I hope soon more people will become aware of what is happening in India, and get in action to change something. This is the first step.

  21. Mariano C. Rodriguez
    January 31, 2014

    Es muy duro ver la realidad de esas mujeres y las injusticias y dolor que pasaran esas niñas, no hay palabras para decir que tan doloroso es su presente como lo sera su futuro, nosotros unidos ayudemos pensemos en nuestros hijos y ayudemos demos un granito de ayuda para que la vida de esas niñas sea mejor. Como podemos ayudar?

  22. Shazia Babu Maan
    January 31, 2014

    no doubt, she carries the weight of the world…my poor gunjan..but she is not the only lass who is facing such crisis,there r thousands of girles fighting with their circumstances for survival.Asia is full of such famlies.we should do somthing for them.plz tell me what can i do for them.I m a lawyer.

  23. Ian
    January 31, 2014

    Totally unfair to the women of these countries to be advantage in such a way….very saddened…having a mother a wife and a daughter makes me want to work harder to keep them safe and happy

  24. Arnie
    January 31, 2014

    It’s heartbreaking to see kids taking the role of adults as breadwinner. It is frustrating because their government is not doing anything to protect the children and support the widows. Change in social culture is urgently needed to this people or the cycle will never end.

  25. Divya
    January 31, 2014

    This is definitly a heart breaking story. Being from Indian myself just opens my eyes to how fortunate I am. Please inform me of anything I can do to help.

  26. Rufo
    January 31, 2014

    Es tan difícil comprender la cultura de otro país que no es el nuestro.

  27. Ellie Cabell
    January 31, 2014

    This story is heartbreaking; the hopelessness is palpable. It strikes me, though, in the comments above that the need for assistance for these women reaches beyond this family. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to help need to look beyond this family and work towards changing the system. Jessica and Amy, do you have any insight as to how to begin such a move?

  28. rusu
    January 31, 2014

    Thanks for your story.i think with your help we(readers) can do something. So just advise how we can help this family or even more families?

  29. Andrew
    January 31, 2014

    HeartBreaking /

  30. gabriel chew
    January 31, 2014

    Thanks for this story. Please let me know what I can do to help.

  31. Annette
    January 31, 2014

    This is so humble I wish I could help people that live like this in other countries and in our own country

  32. wendy mare
    January 31, 2014

    After reading this article, I feel saddened for the these young girls. It is one thing to have ordeals to overcome in life but without the support of family behind you, the world could feel a scary and lonely place.

  33. luis alejandro gutierrez chavez
    January 31, 2014

    la vida de esta nina en verdad es dura muchas veses nos quejamos de nuestros problemas sin mirar que existen personas con mayores dificultades en su vida eso es tener fortaleza dios bendiga a esta familia

  34. BS
    January 31, 2014

    How can I support this family so that Gunjan can go to school? Please email me directly if you can. Thanks.

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