Widows' pyre deaths add weight to new law

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 June, 2006, 12:00am

The recent death of two women on their husbands' pyres has thrown fresh impetus behind measures to crack down on the age-old practice.

Sati, the ancient Hindu custom of a widow's self-immolation, was banned by the British 175 years ago as 'impious and inhuman', but it persists in pockets of rural India.

When Vidyawati, 35, threw herself into the flames in Rari Bujur village in northern state of Uttar Pradesh on May 18, villagers and her three brothers-in-law watched her.

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.

In April, Sita Devi, 77, died on her husband's pyre in Bihar, eastern India.

According to Hindu texts, sati is supposed to be voluntary but there is usually an element of coercion - physical, psychological or social.

'Women are pressurised 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.

Parliament is expected to consider a new bill in July that will presume sati was committed under duress and the family was in a position to stop the woman.