PARADIP: Widowhood has since time immemorial meant discrimination for women. But at the ashram of Baba Balia in Arilo under Tirtol block of Jagatsinghpur, widows are given a high pedestal, a position of dignity and respect.
The empowerment of widows and bringing social change to accord dignity and rights to them has been his life’s mission. The spiritual leader was moved by the plight of widows, who continue to face discrimination and are forced to live in exile by their families as they are considered ‘inauspicious’ despite existence of many laws.
He decided to start an initiative to end the stigma attached to widowhood and began encouraging such women to participate in all religious festivals including Sabitri Puja. Inspired by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the founder of Brahmo Samaj, Baba Balia began organising a one-day widow conference at his Sishu Ananta ashram.
What started as a small initiative has today spread to all the districts of the State. Widows from all the districts attend the conference every year to share their problems, experiences and also learn to assert their rights and create awareness on the issue in their native places. Most importantly, he has been able to bring about a positive change in people’s attitude towards widows.
“This was not easy in the beginning. Although people were open to social reforms, they still discriminated against widows. They failed to understand the ordeal of women who lost their husbands but were blamed for their deaths and considered inauspicious,” said 68-year-old Baba Balia who was this year chosen to receive the third highest civilian award Padma Shri.
He has started a ‘Bou Utsav’, also called ‘Shefali Utsav’, that is organised every year to create awareness against widow discrimination. “Widows have every right to live with dignity and death of their husbands cannot change that. We have been trying to make people realise this through our initiatives like allowing them in religious functions including Sabitri Puja and the widow conference which is one of its kind in the country,” he said.
Thanking both the State and Central governments for recognising his efforts, he said work in this direction has just started and would continue for a long time. Apart from working for widows, he has also been educating children from poor socio-economic backgrounds. His ashram is home to a Sanskrit school and college where he provides free education to at least 5,000 underprivileged children now.